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Book Review: Machine of Death’s “Vegetables”

By Bobby Forand

Nearly everyone spends hours wondering how they are going to die. The collaborators of Machine of Death took this conundrum to the next level by putting together a compilation of short stories all based around a machine that tells people the method of their future demise via blood sample. There are 34 tales of the aftermath of this discovery, each written through the imagination of a different author. “Vegetables,” a story by Rhode Island resident Chris Cox, was chosen out of 675 stories submitted by 626 different writers.
A first person account that is very Palahniukian, Cox takes us into the world of a seeming corporate guy who passive aggressively hates his friends, coworkers and neighbors. It seems like he has benevolence in his heart when he tries to help Frank overcome his fear of vegetables (his method of death), but his approach is just spiteful, leading to a snap and a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Like a lot of the stories in this collection, Cox’s piece is thought-provoking. He is currently in the process of turning his story into a script, hoping to see his words brought to life on the big screen. Cox was kind enough to put his fiction writing away long enough to answer some questions.

How did you come to contribute to Machine of Death? Did you have a hand in the publishing process?

I didn’t have a hand in the publishing process, but I used to keep an eye on fiction market listings, showing what anthologies, magazines and publications were out there seeking writers or stories.  Through Ralan.com, I happened upon the submission call for the Machine of Death anthology, and found the premise intriguing. The title of each submission had to denote the way someone in the tale was going to die. I like working from prompts, and wanted to challenge myself with something ridiculously healthy, like vegetables. A short while later I had to have some impacted wisdom teeth removed, and they knocked me out for the surgery. I took the rest of the day off, and was still dopey from the morphine, (not to mention facially deconstructed because the surgeon had hands like coal-shovels). So when I got home and reattached my jaw, I grabbed the laptop, flopped back on the sofa and wrote “Vegetables” while in this strange, cranky and surreal mindset. I gave it a quick edit a day or so later, and then sent it in. They received over 600 submissions all in, so I was quite surprised and happy when they accepted it.

How has getting “Vegetables” published in Machine of Death helped your career?

Since Machine of Death came out, I have been working on several other longer projects – novels and film scripts – and so the effect of having Machine of Death on my list of credits remains to be seen.  But being part of Machine in and of itself has been a huge boon – especially as nobody involved with this anthology had any anticipation of how huge it was about to get. Watching this publication from its inception through to release and the global attention has been a trip, to say the least. Fingers crossed this will continue to grow and evolve, for many years to come.

Talk about the process of turning “Vegetables” into a script.  What was/has been different from writing the initial story? Are you currently in talks with any production companies?

Converting this into a script is interesting because the original story is very, very short and leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. So firstly, I laid out the story chronologically, listing scenes and key / pivotal events, which would form an approximate map of the plot. Then I needed to spend some time with the characters in their own environments because they would all need much more definition and personality to fill out this much airtime. Scripts are very visual too, and when a story has a lot of internal dialogue, you have to be mindful not to stuff all that introspection into a dull stream of narrative. This time around, I really got to know the characters much better than they needed to be known in the original short story. I also got to flesh out their world, see outside and beyond the limits of the scenes the story presented, and build an entire poignantly darkly bizarre world around the events already laid out and established. It’s fun actually – kind of like paint by numbers sci-fi – although, this iteration of the story is going to be darker and more unsettling, by far.

I’m not currently in talks with any production companies, but will most likely look for agent representation soon.

How has living in Rhode Island contributed to your writing?

Great question! Rogue Island is by far the coolest place I have ever lived. I’m a thrill seeker by nature, but be careful what you wish for. Since I moved here from England nine years ago, my first job was at a corporation selling consumer electronics, whose owners subsequently went to jail for stealing about $15 million from internet victims. I worked at a human services place on Mineral Spring Ave, which was a very fulfilling job until we got called in one day and told that the previous night, one of the clients had raped and murdered another one of the clients. Then I worked for a guy assembling grills and wheelbarrows, driving around various Lowes and Home Depots. But this guy was a shady bastard who wore an ankle bracelet for some prior undisclosed offense, and had to dial into a parole line every time we ventured anywhere near the state line. Only experiences and perspective can contribute to your writing, and RI has given me massive quantities of both.

Has do-it-yourself publishing changed the literary landscape at all? If so, how?

Yes! Traditional publishing has always been a tough gig to break into, and tended to have pretty high standards because of the competitive environment. But since software and ebooks made DIY publishing available to the masses, we now suddenly have this overwhelming proliferation of self-proclaimed authors, very often whose work really isn’t ready for publication yet, and in the worse cases, isn’t even fit to wipe your arse on. When you look at the two ways of getting your book out, self-publishing is very tempting, because you have full control, it gets released much faster and you get the majority of the profit from sales. But on the flip side, you also lack objectivity, may want to skip over the editing process – big mistake, never do this – and you may not know the first thing about marketing. You’re also going into it with a lot of prejudicial attitudes and self-proclaimed experts out there stating that all self-published work is crap, which is absolutely not the case. I know at least one fabulous writer who took the self-published route for his last two novels, but he has found all kinds of obstacles through doing this – one being that some review sites won’t even consider reading self-published material.

Would you pay to know how you will die?

I would most likely pay several times, and then spend the rest of my life trying to prove it wrong. If the stub said old age, I’d go jump off a bridge.

What’s one book people should read this summer?

C’mon, you can fit at least five books in over the summer! But if we get only one, I highly, highly recommend Backbite, by Adrienne Jones.

Any final thoughts?

Oh yeah, lots of them, but I’ll spare you the bulk. When Machine of Death beat out Glenn Beck on the Amazon radar, he commented on his radio show that we have a “death obsessed culture,” and I am somewhat inclined to agree. Death is very cool until somebody you love dies, and then it is the worst thing by far, and makes you want to die yourself. So focus on life, party hard, laugh lots, love love and enjoy yourself as if you were going to die yourself at some point in the future. Because you are. And so am I. And hopefully these events are a long, long way off.




Book Review: Buddhaland Brooklyn

Soon, it will be winter. You’ll look out over brown fields and at empty branches, and though you understand that life remains, this knowledge cannot ameliorate the scene’s barrenness. A similar conclusion can be drawn about Robert Morais’ new novel, Buddhaland Brooklyn.

Much of the responsibility for this lies with Morais’ choice of narrator, the Reverend Seido Oda, a phlegmatic Buddhist who lived most of his life within the walls of his monastery in Japan. His supervisors choose him to go to New York to oversee the construction of a temple in Brooklyn and guide believers in the tenets and practices of the faith.

Reverend Oda, however, carries a tragic past that warped him into an emotionless, unsympathetic man. Chosen to be a monk at a very early age, he was taken somewhat unwillingly from his family. When the entire family is killed in a fire, Oda is left alone. A disappointing love affair with a worldly woman in his young adulthood only compounds Oda’s well-developed tendency to shut out the world. He becomes an art teacher at his monastery, transforming into the kind of instructor he and his fellow students mocked when they were young.

All this changes with his transfer to Brooklyn. A more different world from the sheltered monastery where Oda drifted toward nothing but his eventual old age and peaceful death could not be imagined, and this is likely Morais’ intention. We are introduced to a crew of apparently prototypical Brooklynites, but they come across less as colorful characters than rote caricatures.

All this might have worked had Oda been capable of expressing himself with anything other than unconvincing melancholy. Not even love can cut through Oda’s tough emotional hide. His assistant, Jennifer Meli, is attracted to the aloof Reverend Oda, and gradually draws him out of his shell. She is uncertain about whether this is the right thing to do, and her desire for Reverend Oda is less a reflection of love for the man than of her own journey toward deeper understanding of their chosen religion. Meli is one of the few fully realized characters here, and she almost saves the novel.

The point of the story, I suspect, is to show Oda’s slow restoration to life and to chronicle his transformation into a better spiritual leader and a better man. In Brooklyn, he experiences all the frustrations of urban life, and there are some funny scenes where he must deal with the bureaucracy, pace, and pushiness of life in a large city. These, however, are immaterial compared to the unacknowledged pain caused by the loss of his family.

His tone, though, is so bloodless that even the most powerfully felt emotions come across as flat and two-dimensional. Reverend Oda isn’t a cold fish, he’s flash-frozen, but that doesn’t mean the book had to be, too. Had there been another narrative point of view, the pulse of the text might have risen above the 45 beats per minute at which it lumbers along. Brooklyn can do that to you. But it never happens here, to the detriment of an otherwise promising story.




Gotschall ‘Storytelling Animal’

“Tell me a story.”

Put on the spot like that, one’s mind tends to go blank. Based on the context, and the identity of the person demanding the story, you might dust off your hazy recollection of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, or perhaps something more along the lines of Fifty Shades of Grey (no, that book is not the subject of this review; speaking on behalf of all true deviants, I can claim with confidence that the appetites explored in that particular text are, at best, pedestrian).

The fact of the matter, however, according to Jonathan Gottschall in his new book The Storytelling Animal, is that a conscious decision to tell a story is just a pimple on a fly standing on the tip of the iceberg of the inherent human storytelling inclination. We are predisposed to storytelling. It’s hardwired into us, and we spend a lot more time than we think doing it.

The question Gottschall is most concerned with is “why.” What evolutionary purpose does storytelling serve? To cite his own leading question, if you had two proto-human societies, alike in every way except that one spent some of its time and energy, not hunting or gathering food or resting or finding a safe place to sleep away from predators, but telling tales that explained why the stars looked the way they did and what caused thunder and lightning, which society do you think would survive? It’s a trick question of course, because we know that it’s the storytellers who survived. They are us.

At the core of the book is his contention that there is a universal grammar of storytelling, that in every society throughout human history, people have told stories about other people, or anthropomorphized animals or gods, dealing with some sort of problem and either overcoming it or succumbing to it.

“Stories universally focus on the great predicaments of the human condition,” Gottschall argues, and it’s hard to see many exceptions to the conditions he cites. Blithely noting the almost uniquely 20th Century conceit of breaking out of this general pattern and telling stories where nothing much happens, Gottschall observes sharply that very few people really read books like Finnegans Wake.

In manageable chapters of relatively jargon-free, somewhat breezy prose, Gottschall navigates through the cognitive theories behind the apparently universal human need for storytelling. There is a deep, some would say fundamental link between storytelling and our other desires, for food, sex, love, and life itself. Why else, he wonders, would we waste our time on an activity that adds nothing tangible or useful to our lives?

But the stories we consciously concoct do not nearly exhaust the inventory of our storytelling stores. Our dreams, our memories, our very notions of who we are and what our purpose in life is are all shaped by a narrative unconscious that is as natural to us as breathing or walking upright. This isn’t always a good thing, as we tend to deceive ourselves about the things we remember and our motives for the things we do, but it’s nothing we can ever escape. If you doubt this, says Gottschall, look at children. There’s not a child in the world who does not play, and there’s almost no play scenario that doesn’t take the form of a story. Perhaps, he suggests, story play is analogous to play in the animal kingdom, where the young practice in play the skills they will need to survive in adulthood.

Gottschall digs deeply into this and multiple other ideas about the purpose and function of storytelling, and if he insists on none of them to the exclusion of any other, he never doubts the validity of his conclusions about the innate human need for storytelling, or allows his infectious enthusiasm for his subject to flag. There’s not a dry, academic passage in a book that could that could have been full of both.

Gottschall’s main purpose here is to explore the evolutionary function of storytelling and offer possible explanations for its ubiquity in human culture, and he does a very good job. Thinking about it though, I would say that one could push the idea of the origin of storytelling even further. Granted, this is somewhat outside of Gottschall’s stated purview, but if we stipulate to the premise that all stories involve something happening, isn’t storytelling a function of existence itself? And I don’t just mean life, but all existence. Think about it: a system starts out in a particular physical state. Over time, that changes, and the system transforms. Eventually, the system’s existence concludes. The addition of human concerns about the causes and the good or bad of this transformation and conclusion are conceits we apply, rather parochially, to our own stories, but the underlying structure is still there no matter what you look at. Maybe story is a function of entropy. Maybe the whole




Leith’s ‘Coincidence Engine’ Digs Deep, Dark

Somewhere, the spirit of Douglas Adams is crying foul over Sam Leith’s new novel The Coincidence Engine. Lifting from the Hitchhiker books Adams’ infinite improbability drive is a far more venial sin than abandoning the promising screwball comedy of the novel’s first half for a much deeper, darker, and incongruous exploration of the characters that populate this madcap tale.

The coincidence engine itself, a device that does “end of the bell curve” things to chance and probability, may or may not exist, but it is the object of intense interest to a couple of sinister organizations and the people they employ to retrieve it. After a 737 spontaneously assembles itself from nothing in ruralAlabamain an attitude of a crash, both the DEI (Directorate of the Extremely Improbable) and MIC Industrial Futures, a shadowy multinational arms company, understand that the brainchild of a mysterious mathematician Nicholas Banacharski may actually be real, and they are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to find it.

Alex Smart, a young British post-grad trying to figure out what do with his degree and whether or not he should propose to his American girlfriend Carey, knows nothing about any of this, nor is he even aware that he is both the prime suspect in the theft of the coincidence engine and the subject of a manhunt that at times resembles a cross between a Looney Tunes short and a deleted scene for It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

While MIC operatives Sherman and Davidoff, a pair of somewhat dim but quite dangerous ex-soldiers keep missing Alex by literal inches, DEI agent Bree, a recovering alcoholic and mother of an estranged daughter, travels a parallel path with her creepy partner Jones, a man who suffers from a psychosis, which manifests for him in a complete inability to imagine or perceive of anything beyond physical reality. Hovering over all of this in her offices deep beneath New York City is the mysterious Red Queen, director of the DEI.

It’s a wonderful premise, one that promises full outlet for an author who wants to set loose his wildest flights of fancy. And for the roughly the first half of the text Leith faithfully delivers the farcical romp his story promises. Somewhere, however, he gets turned round. Bree’s tragic history is foregrounded and drains much of the fun from the story. Jones’ condition causes serious consequences. Alex’s journey evolves into a meditation on a life, specifically his own but by extension anyone’s, at a crossroads.

Great comedy is always no more than an inch or two away from tragedy, and very often the tipping point is as much a matter of tone as it is of plot. There was no way to make light of Bree and her daughter, no way to laugh at Sherman’s devotion to his colleague Davidoff, and it would have been a betrayal to portray Carey and Alex’s relationship with anything less than the respect and tenderness with which Leith conceives it.

These explorations are executed flawlessly, and it is by means of that very skill that Leith performs his bait and switch. The laughs dry up in the second half of the book, the text gets heavy, and a thoughtful, mature novel materializes where once there had been a rollicking comic funfest. Strange coincidences still drive the plot, but these are secondary to the inner lives of the characters. The closer Alex gets to Carey, the closer the DEI and MIC get to him, the less the coincidence engine seems to matter. Other writers have gone here before (Carl Hiassen, Tim Dorsey), but the sympathy they allow themselves to feel for their characters is delivered in quick blasts that never invade the overall lighthearted atmosphere.

Leithis doing two very different things very well in The Coincidence Engine. What he does less well is sew them smoothly together, and the result is a funny, highly inventive but uneven novel.




Hayhurst Hurls Personal ‘Out of My League’

A female acquaintance of mine once complained about baseball that “All it is, is a bunch of guys standing around grabbing themselves and spitting for an hour, moving for maybe two seconds, then standing around grabbing themselves and spitting for another hour.”
While this characteristic of baseball cannot be denied, there’s a lot more to a good baseball game. A good baseball book, however, needs to go beyond the technical, the wheels within wheels, the guessing and the strategy and the attempts by both teams to reduce chance to an absolute minimum and gain any edge in a game of inches. It needs to explore the characters that make up this oldest and most revered (deservedly or not) of American pastimes.

Dirk Hayhurst

Dirk Hayhurst’s Out of My League is a good baseball book. Hayhurst, who pitched two seasons in the big leagues for the Padres and Blue Jays, spent most of his career in the minor leagues, and it is this experience that he writes about, exposing the sausage grinder that is Double- and Triple-A. Without varnish and with considerable humor, Hayhurst chronicles the juvenile pranks, macho posturing, Romanesque promiscuity and perversity, selfishness, physical and mental hardship, cruel hazing, abject poverty, and deep, abiding camaraderie that flourishes in the minors. Crappy hotels; brutal travel conditions; horrible food; callous managers; miniscule, indifferent crowds; treatment by ownership that compares unfavorably to medieval serfdom; minor leaguers endure all these, sometimes for their whole careers, for a chance to get to what they call with awestruck reverence ‘The Show.’
But Hayhurst isn’t just documenting minor league life. He is refracting it through his own experience in an attempt to draw a more universal conclusion about what can be gained and what must be sacrificed to a harsh daily grind that offers little hope for advancement and at best fleeting rewards.
For Hayhurst, life both within and outside the game is a tough slog. Even giving him the benefit of authorial doubt, it is hard to imagine that he doesn’t exaggerate a little bit in his portrayal of his reality-TV-level-dysfunctional family. Substance abuse, physical disability, denial, depression, and a grandmother who would make Lady Macbeth say “Damn, that woman is f***ed up” are what Hayhurst has to look forward to coming home to in the off-season, along with a meaningless, menial job at Circuit City. Only his girlfriend Bonnie, a saint in music therapist’s clothing, offers him any kind of respite.
Bonnie, too, tends to strain credibility. If women half as tolerant, understanding honest and faithful as Bonnie exist, then this is just one more yard in the steadily mounting Everest of evidence that I have been hanging around all the wrong bars and talking to all the wrong women. Still, I suppose she is possible, and she’s made more probable when she finally stands up to Hayhurst near the text’s conclusion, forcing him to look at what he has become and what he will lose if he keeps on the path he’s unconsciously chosen. In more ways than one, Bonnie is Hayhurst’s salvation.
Salvation is the operative word, because Hayhurst is one of those more religiously committed athletes. Thankfully, he doesn’t allow this to affect his prose, which is for the most part polished and fluid, and never sanctimonious. Short, episodic chapters bespeak the journalistic apprenticeship he underwent during his playing career, when he wrote a column for a sports periodical, and he can paint a word picture more than competently most of the time.
Compression, composite characters, and some rather extended direct quotations suggest that Hayhurst sacrifices some accuracy for the sake of making his point, but it doesn’t really matter in light of the larger project here: tracking Hayhurst’s evolution as a ballplayer and a man. The drama and tension of a life in the minors, where you balance your affection for your teammates against the knowledge that, in order for you to succeed, some of them must fail, make the monster he becomes seem almost inevitable, a man who gives everything to achieve a dream and comes close to losing everything of real value in his life just as that dream is within his grasp. What, the text implicitly asks, would you give up to reach your goal? What would you allow that goal to take from you? Out of My League is Dirk Hayhurst’s highly personal answer, and the book does not fail to redirect these questions back on the reader.




O’Nan’s ‘The Odds’ Rolls Double or Nothing

Two books take place simultaneously within the slim confines of Stewart O’Nan’s new novel The Odds. One tells the story of a failed marriage, its two unhappy principals not filled with hate for each other, but worn down by their own and their partner’s mistakes and weaknesses. The other explores how desperation can drive people to take enormous chances, discovering in themselves the possibility of courage and the capacity to reject what fate seems determined to do to them.

Art and Marion Fowler are running away, fleeing, we are told in the book’s opening lines, toCanada. Art has lost his job, their house is being foreclosed upon, and the denial of their dire circumstances in which they have lived will no longer support the weight of reality. But they aren’t heading north to disappear. Instead, Art has converted most of their remaining assets to cash in order to gamble it all on the roulette tables of a casino atNiagara Fallsin a desperate attempt to win back what they’ve lost.

But they’ve lost a lot more than money.Marionis still deeply wounded by Art’s infidelity, an affair that took place decades before and for which Art has been doing penance ever since. O’Nan deftly weaves the present and the past together, slowly revealing Art’s motivations and bottomless guilt, and over the chapters that move back and forward in time he paints a pointillist picture of nor just Art’s indiscretion, but of their entire married life. Art loves his wife deeply, yet he was capable of betraying her, and O’Nan doesn’t try to resolve this apparent paradox because he knows there is no resolution beyond the fact that Art is flawed, complex and not completely self-aware or totally in control. In other words, he’s human.

Whether this means he ought to be forgiven isMarion’s decision, and O’Nan sees her as the most tragic and sympathetic character in the text. She is still angry, and probably always will be, but is hardly guiltless herself. The divorce they are planning is ostensibly for financial reasons, butMarionsees it also as a final cutting of the cord, a way to get on with her life. Yet despite everything she still loves her husband, and she is tired of her anger and her suspicion even as she sees forgiving him and letting go of her pain as a personal failure. This pain is not all there is toMarion, but it is so deeply entrenched in her psyche that she runs the risk of allowing it to define her. The relationship between these two very real people, their intimate knowledge of each other’s quirks, preferences, weaknesses and strengths is shown skillfully in the fluid shifts in tone and mood that O’Nan effects through the slightest turn of a word or phrase in what anyone watching from the outside would see as a totally innocent conversation.

All this is set against the backdrop ofNiagara Fallsand Art’s crazy plan. A love letter to the Falls this book certainly is not, and O’Nan (I cannot help but suspect for comic relief) seems almost gleeful as he skewers the kitschy tourist traps and even kitschier tourists Niagara has fattened itself on for a hundred years. BringingMarionback to the site of their honeymoon, Art hopes to rekindle the dying embers of their marriage. He perseveres despite the thousand little inconveniences and small failures that tend to plague budget tourists: the lost reservation, the bad dinner that results in stomach upset, the too-long line for the much-anticipated attraction. A heart concert at the casino, complete with drugs, sex and the spectacle of middle-aged baby boomers rocking arthritically to the soundtrack of their lost youth is the saddest and funniest episode of the text, and it shows vividly one of O’Nan’s minor but complementary points: traveling is fun, but it is also a good course in dealing with disappointment.

The disappointments Art andMarionexperience on this trip, while always minor, reflect metaphorically the slow, small, disappointing dissolution of their life together, a life Art and perhaps unconsciously evenMarionwishes they could resurrect. The odds are against them, and they know it. But they try and, win or lose, in trying they achieve a kind of success. So does The Odds.




‘Lost Saints of Tennessee’ Find Redemption

There’s an iron fist inside the velvet glove that is Amy Franklin-Willis’ new novel, The Lost Saints of Tennessee, a story that, though it strays into sentimentality now and again, nevertheless depicts the small everyday challenges, successes and failures that define most lives with both empathy and unblinking realism.

Ezekiel Cooper, 40, divorced, owner of much unfulfilled potential as a scholarship winner who dropped out of college to help care for his mentally disabled twin brother Carter, is contemplating suicide when we meet him. Since he narrates of most of the book, it’s unsurprising that he can’t quite finish the job. His drive towards self destruction is only partially motivated by his grief, undiminished despite the ten years between the text’s present, 1985, and Carter’s death. Zeke, as he is known to everyone, is drowning in his own mediocrity and squandered opportunities, and the heavy stone of his lost twin is just one of the many weights dragging him down.

Franklin-Willis writes Zeke with impressive frankness and willingness to embrace the true-but-difficult-to-reconcile-in-fiction fact that there are rarely perfect explanations for why people do the things they do. If Zeke were the only focus of the story, the book would be shorter, lighter and less interesting. But Franklin-Willis explores three generations of Coopers in an attempt to show not just a slice of life, but the whole pie.

Franklin-Willis’ apparent belief that an alternative voice needs to be heard in order for the Coopers to be fully understood explains why Zeke’s mother Lillian narrates a section of the text, though it doesn’t mitigate the jarring nature of this shift in point of view. A strong woman, it is unsurprising that she should take over the novel for a time. She tells the wrenching tale her teenage pregnancy and motherhood, a life for which she did not plan and which slowly drains her of her native vitality, as well as robbing her of the opportunity to develop her impressive singing talent. Giving birth to and caring for not just twins, but three other children in the rural South breaks and remolds Lillian, and her voice as she recounts her life is the voice of many women who want to ask if it is right or fair that they should lose who they are and what they desire for themselves when they have children. The text wisely offers no answer, and Lillian’s anguish over trying to reclaim an identity of her own conveys the sense that her history, while not quite a nightmare from which is trying to wake, is representative of a lot of young women. She’s a Shakespeare’s sister who doesn’t end up dead and does what she can to make the best life she can for herself, but along the way she makes plenty of mistakes — as does everyone in the book. Spouses get cheated on, children get hurt and don’t get better. Death comes too early, and sometimes too late. In no place and at no time, the text is saying, can you find unsullied peace. Even the Edenic Virginia farm of Zeke’s wealthy elderly cousins, Georgia and Osbourne Lacey, where Zeke recuperates from his descent into the abyss, is visited by both literal and figurative stormy weather. This idyllic place is shadowed by the slow-motion horror of Osbourne’s advancing Alzheimer’s Disease

By the time we get to what’s going on with Zeke’s fifteen-year-old daughter Honora, we might feel that Franklin-Willis is laying the tragedy on a bit thick. But therein lies the delicate balancing act the book has set up for itself. Lost Saints aims to be an accurate depiction of real life, and real life never stops dishing out both the good and the bad. Fiction, on the other hand, can do whatever it wants. The desired effect here seems to be to show that no matter who you are or where you go, you cannot escape the unpredictable and constant sharp turns of fortune life doles out. People get sick, they die, they find love and lose it and find it again in the same place and in unexpected places at the same time, and the timing is never quite right, because the definition of ‘quite right’ depends upon each individual’s emotional and psychological state, a thing for which real life couldn’t care less.

Zeke’s coming to consciousness of these immutable conditions is as close as the book comes to a point. His rise from suicidal loser to more mature man trying to navigate the treacherous jungle of caring for himself and sacrificing for his loved ones, a trip that is by no means finished just because the novel ends, strikes an authentic note, as does Franklin-Willis conception of family dynamics, with all their shifting loyalties, pettiness, and moments of selfless grace. “You laugh until you cry/You cry until you laugh/And everyone must breath/Until their dying breath” goes a line from an old Regina Spektor song, and there is no more apt summation than this of The Lost Saints of Tennessee.




‘Stranger’s Child’ Estranges Interest

Boredom, identical in effect, is the offspring of a million causes. I can happily watch the moon rise over the beach, changing colors as it climbs higher into the sky, while another person would consider walking into the water and never walking out again a much more pleasant alternative activity. I thought about this as I plodded through Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel The Stranger’s Child, a beautifully written book that at times bored me to distraction, yet managed to hold my interest in the vain hope that something, anything interesting might happen.

The story traces the fortunes of two British families, the upper-class Valances and the middle-class-but-aspiring-to-higher-ground Sawles, from just before World War I through the late 1990s. Cecil Valance, the flamboyant elder son and heir to the Valance fortune, is a dandified omni-sexual poet who will die in the war and whose poem ‘Two Acres’ takes its name from the modest estate of the Sawle family. Cecil writes the poem for sixteen-year-old Daphne Sawle in the summer of 1913, and following his passing this verse will be immortalized, anthologized, memorized by generations of schoolchildren, and provide the rickety axle upon which the wheel of the novel turns. The rather torrid affair Cecil carries on with George Sawle, a friend of his from college, remains secret for the better part of the twentieth century, and this is probably a good thing, because he may or may not be the father of George Sawle’s younger sister Daphne’s first child, Corinna.

If the bulk of the text was devoted to how Cecil’s secret has affected his legacy and the way his contribution to English letters, particularly war poetry, has been received, it might be a more focused and interesting book. But Hollinghurst chooses instead to direct his attention to the evolution of the stigma attached to same-sex relationships inEngland, and to the slow decay of both the gilded world Cecil and the Sawles came from and the physical and material dissolution of the people who occupied it.

During Cecil’s life, and for a long time afterwards, it was a crime to engage in homosexuality inEngland, a crime for which Oscar Wilde was only the most famous perpetrator to be imprisoned. Hollinghurst spends a lot time making sure that the reader understands that Cecil’s sexuality, as well as the tendencies of those who become intrigued by him, are only a minor part of the overall story of this minor poet who died before he could have flowered into something more substantial than the obscure footnote to literary history he became.

And therein lays the great drawback of the story. Hollinghurst has done too good a job of rendering his main character and any drama that might have obtained in unearthing the full truth about him obscure. Time tends to make utterly invisible today’s dramas and catastrophes, and in telling the story of Cecil Valance and the people he influenced, Hollinghurst hammers this point mercilessly. It is impossible not to feel empathy for the individual characters, particularly Daphne Sawle, who marries Cecil’s odious brother Dudley before moving on to two subsequent and, hopefully, more fulfilling matches. Daphne, a sprightly, alcoholic bon vivant whose downward trajectory in life is as sad as her own irrepressible spirit is inspiring, is the most human of all the people here, and Hollinghurst’s cartography of her journey from lively adolescent to elderly woman is touching and superbly rendered.

The rest of the cast are for the most part reprehensibly predatory, regardless of their distance from Cecil and Daphne. Consumed to various degrees as they are by advancing either their careers or their personal obsessions via an explication, public or private, of Cecil’s story, they use whatever tenuous connection they have to the pre-war world and its denizens only to advance their own agendas.

Another kind of explication is happening, subtly, via this line of narrative: the sewage pit of celebrity stalking. There is something vaguely parasitic about almost everyone here, as they blunder on through the books they write about Cecil and the interviews they conduct as they try to invest themselves with some significance by digging up as much dirt as they can about a poet who was killed in war they never saw and the woman he may or may not have fathered a child with.

But Hollinghurst will not give in to the temptation that must have presented itself multiple times throughout the composition of this book; he will not let the novel devolve into a literary detective story. There will be no stunning revelations, no surprise endings, no fantastic reveals that turn the lives of the families here upside down, only the constant reemphasis of the grim truth everyone with a brain that has passed through adolescence already knows; nothing we hold dear and nothing we think is important and nothing we would sacrifice almost everything for really matters that much in the long view.

There’s an old Charlie Brown cartoon whose punch line reads “Five hundred years from now, who’s going to know the difference?” The Stranger’s Child is nearly four hundred fifty pages of the same message. Exquisitely written and promising, but finally tedious and disappointing.




Offer Editor the Antidote? Maybe

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, because I despise the inevitable disappointment I feel when I break them slightly more than I enjoy the wicked thrill of violating even self-imposed laws. This doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t indulge myself, at least vicariously, by suggesting resolutions that would better both those who ought to make them and everyone within their sphere of influence.

For reasons I have yet to work out, friends and family tend not to take these helpful recommendations in the spirit of self-improvement in which they are intended; not-so-subtle hints about precisely where I can stick my proposals flow with the eggnog, and I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut after ducking enough hurled cups of Holiday cheer.

So this year, I will reserve my advice for those who truly need it, and who are least likely to come after me with a hot bowl of figgy pudding in one hand and a sharpened sprig of holly in the other. I’m talking about those responsible for the book world: writers, publishers, and the various hangers-on who derive a parasitic existence from these worthy hosts. Book reviewers being the obvious exception, as we are a rare breed whose ways are little understood and whose habits are strange.

To begin with an eye toward November, when we will conclude the quadrennial exercise in waste, false hope, lies and futility otherwise known as a Presidential election, let it be resolved that any candidate for President who writes a book will be required to recite from their own work, from memory, and answer questions put to them about its contents. Any inability to do this proficiently will result in that candidate’s immediate withdrawal from the race.

Secondly, lawyers who have tried and lost conspicuously public cases are barred from retrying those cases in the form of books. If you were too stupid or incompetent to secure either a conviction or acquittal when it mattered, at the trial, then why should anyone bother to read what you have to say about it? My rules, as the late, great George Carlin said, I make ‘em up.

Peter Jackson must apologize publicly every year on September 22nd for what he did to The Lord of the Rings. That one is a bit personal, since I have been a devoted LOTR geek since age nine and, while I appreciated the majestic sweep and thrilling action of his films, I cannot abide the many blasphemous changes and elisions he perpetrated. And the damn movies were still too long! Other LOTR aficionados will understand why September 22nd is the chosen date for this necessary penance.

Any established author who writes his books ‘with’ another author — I’m talking to you James Patterson, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler and quite a few others I could name — must immediately reverse the royalty structure breakdown, so that the person that did most of the grunt work on the text receives their due. You know, the little thing called writing gets the majority of the money. Write your own damn books, people!

No one is allowed to appropriate a dead author’s name in order to continue that author’s work. A dispensation will be granted on a one-time-only basis for the Wheel of Time series, but that’s it. Unless the writer who is too lazy to come up with his own characters and stories agrees that, prior to publication of a new book using someone else’s characters, they will kill themselves. I know that sounds kind of harsh, but I don’t make up these rules, despite what you may have read above.

No more books turning classic characters or historical figures into zombie hunters, vampire slayers, werewolf neuterers, or any other such nonsense.

David Mitchell, Salman Rushdie, and Louis DeBernieres will be required to publish new, full-length novels every two years, minimum. There are very few writers working in English who consistently produce A+ material, and these three are among them.

People who star in reality television shows are not allowed to write books. I use the words ‘people’ and ‘write’ in the preceding sentence at least as loosely as the word ‘reality.’ It’s bad enough that these doughy bags of fetid narcissism masquerading as human beings pollute the general zeitgeist via TV. Do we really need to see their faces in bookstores too?

Anyone pretentious enough to use the word zeitgeist in print will have his laptop confiscated.

Uh-oh.

The halftime show at the Super Bowl will be the Nobel Prize for Literature awards ceremony. No possibility of wardrobe malfunctions here. The prizes for peace, physics, chemistry and whatever other insignificant garbage they award those things for can be shown between innings of the MLB All-Star game.

And finally, I know I said that I would refrain from making any resolutions about my own behavior, but I will resolve here to at least one positive (more or less) action. I promise to continue administering the antidote to the undetectable poison I slipped into my editor’s drink during a barbecue at his house a few summers ago, following his inexplicable and unforgivable act of cutting an entire sentence from a review I had filed.

Sleep tight. You’re safe. For now.