Posts Tagged ‘Novel’

Photo by Danielle Kantrowitz

From the book jacket:

Rebecca Rasmussen teaches creative writing and literature at Fontbonne University.  Her stories have appeared in Triquarterly magazine and Mid-American Review.  She was a finalist in both Narrative magazine’s 30 Below contest for writers under the age of 30 and in Glimmer Train‘s Family Matters contest. She lives with her husband and daughter in St. Louis.  [The Bird Sisters] is her first novel.

To read Rebecca Rasmussen’s essay on writing a novel (posted on Cathy Day’s blog), click here.

In his short stories, Ben Percy writes characters who work blue collar jobs and live in working class towns.  The male characters do manly things—fishing, hunting, and other outdoorsmen activities—and respond to conflict like men are suppose to—by drinking beer or fighting.  But they’re never one-dimensional.  They have sensitive sides, they question their fathers—not necessarily in the open—and they doubt their own mentalities.  In order to adapt to this sort of predetermined idea of masculinity, they partake in acts of savagery or, depending on the opponent—say, an Alpha male, like one of their fathers—they react by submitting.  These testosterone-fueled occurrences mask the character’s underlying issues.

Percy continues to write about the male dynamic in his debut novel, The Wilding.  Set in and around Bend, Oregon, the novel weaves together the stories of three primary characters—including a fourth near the end—as personal and geographic landscapes continue to evolve in the new millennium.  This change, of course, is met with resistance from humans and from nature.

One of the focal characters—Brian, a locksmith who has returned from Iraq wounded both physically and emotionally—literally wears a mask and suit made from animal pelts in an attempt to feel powerful and invisible.  Because when he’s not wearing it—when he’s out at a bar in Portland with his war buddies, for example—he’s unable to “process friendship or love or any human desire except for want and not-want.”

He puts on this suit to stalk the only woman who can make him feel human—Karen, an athletic suburban mother who tries to distract herself from the malaise of an unhappy marriage by running long distances.  While Brian’s storyline is secondary in this novel, his struggle to readjust to civilian life, trying to forget the savagery of war, helps fully develop the book’s major theme of how little separates man from beast.  And his connection to Karen acts as a direct link to the primary story.

Which belongs to Justin—Karen’s husband—an English teacher who embarks on a hunting trip with his father, Paul, and son, Graham, on the eve of a major rezoning development in the forest where they’ve always camped.  While in woods, the three encounter problems that put a hamper on the trip, causing tensions to rise between them instead of them being allowed to enjoy each other’s company and the landscape surrounding them.

There are the run-ins with a local who’s upset about the impending destruction of the area.  He takes it out on them—with good reason, since Paul is heading the new rezoning project—by sabotaging their trip any way he can.  Paul’s health is in a state of decline, and out of stubbornness he refuses to leave the woods without scoring one final buck. But the most vital external conflict is that a rare grizzly is roaming these woods.  Reports of the bear attacking people have already surfaced, and because they don’t have the modern conveniences that will be available to the area once development commences—like cell phone signals—their family hunting trip turns into a feat of survival.

What makes the bear so significant is its association to the strain in Justin’s relationship with his dad.  The novel opens with a recounting of his most damaging childhood memory: at the age of twelve, his father ordered him to kill a wounded bear found in the ten acres of woods surrounding their home.  This anecdote becomes a metaphor, one that Karen’s quick to point out, for the relationship between father and son.  Justin has a tendency to do whatever his father tells him, even when reason and better judgment would suggest otherwise.

And now, on this hunting trip, Paul is trying to make a man out of Graham the same way he tried to with Justin.  Which Karen had expressed disapproval of prior to them leaving, since she finds Paul’s old school habits to be reckless.  She fears for Graham’s safety, and rightfully so, seeing as she recently miscarried hers and Justin’s daughter, adding to the strain of an already fragile marriage.  Justin wants to please her and to regain a sense of the union they once had, but on this trip after Graham tags his first deer, something grabs a hold of him:

Justin feels gripped by a reckless idea.  The darkness of the woods and the thrill of the hunt and the wildness of his father have torn away some protective seal inside him; he cannot control himself.  For a moment, just a moment, he forgets about his mortgage payment, his shaggy lawn, his Subaru and the groaning noise it makes when he turns left, his desk and the pile of ungraded papers waiting on it.  All of that has gone someplace else, replaced by an urge, a wildness.

The Wilding blends compelling storylines with emotionally significant themes, creating a richly layered novel that makes a reader care about its characters.  Percy’s able to seamlessly weave together the multiple narratives in powerful, yet elegant, prose without making the story seem contrived, forced, or overwritten.  If you’re looking for a solid book that follows the lives of the middle class—the blue-collar workers and the underpaid academics—working out real problems, then look no further; this is your book.

Graywolf Press
September 28, 2010

Photo by Jennifer May

From the book jacket:

Benjamin Percy is the author of [the short story collections] The Language of Elk and Refresh, Refresh.  His honors include the Plimpton Prize, a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories.  His fiction and nonfiction have been published by Esquire, Men’s Journal, the Paris Review, and Orion.  He teaches in the MFA program in creative writing and environment at Iowa State University.

The Wilding is Percy’s first novel.  To read his story, “Somebody is Going to have to Pay for This,” published in the Barcelona Review, click here.

The first thing we observe about Scott Blackwood’s novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, is its small size—roughly 150 pages, when we take into account blank pages and where the first chapter begins.  Once we crack its spine and get to reading, we see that the chapters act as little vignettes, each spanning only a few pages, and that they alternate between the characters’ points-of-view.  Interspersed, we find italicized chapters told in first-person plural, revealing one of the book’s central themes: community response—emotionally and physically—to tragic accidents.

Blackwood’s debut novel takes place in suburban Austin, where the residents encounter a chain reaction of mysterious incidents.  Dennis Lipsy, a thirty-eight year old lawyer, has become attracted to his teenage neighbor, Natalie, and has gone as far as making advances toward her.  His wife is unable to get a hold of him when their son, Isaac, falls from a tree and breaks his arm.  That’s because Dennis has followed Natalie to the theater downtown, where she’s taking in a movie alone.  His wife, Winnie, doesn’t believe him when he says he was with a client at the time of their son’s accident.  She goes as far as to contact his clients in order to check up on the stories he tells her.  When Natalie goes missing, the tension level causes us to grip this book tighter and turn the pages quicker.

We know where Natalie is, of course; we’re told in the first section.  The night she goes missing, P.G. McWhirter steals the Lipsy’s Chevy Blazer, because that’s what he does: he steals the vehicles for money, then they’re transported over the border where they can blend in.  En route to the drop-off, he’s distracted by a toothache and loses control of the Blazer, causing the tires to slide right into Natalie, who was walking along the shoulder of the road.

Later, he would remember the girl looking back over her shoulder at him, smiling, a funky wide-brimmed hat tilted on her head.  We agreed to meet just here, she seemed to say.  But it would be the photo from the TV news he was actually remembering.

Though we know what happened to Natalie, the book still has the feel of a mystery novel, likely because the other characters are concerned with finding out where Natalie has gone, and eventually, figuring out what happened to her.  But seeing the residents of Deep Eddy solve these mysteries isn’t what keeps us reading; we continue turning the page to find out how Dennis and P.G. react to what has happened.  Dennis’s lies cause strain on his relationship with Isaac and Winnie, and Natalie’s disappearance doesn’t curb his infatuation for her; P.G.’s guilt throbs in his aching tooth, as he worries over the consequences of his accident and what might happen to his wife and baby.  Blackwood masterfully utilizes dramatic irony to heighten tension in these situations.

There’s also the case of Odie Dodd—the retired physician, stricken with cancer, whose wife, Ruth, can’t find him.  He’s wandered off, and the community assumes it’s the result of an argument over whether or not he should continue chemotherapy.  We see Odie throughout the book, though.  He’s hanging out with Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple, a man who had asked Odie to vaccinate children in Jonestown—“the axis around which his life winds,” according to Ruth.

We’re not sure if it’s trauma brought on by cancer or having known Jim Jones that causes Odie to walk and talk with this dead cult leader.  But Odie can’t go home until he achieves peace with himself.  Does he blame himself for not being able to stop the massacre?  Or is he angered that he was almost a part of it—ody, being a suffix for the Heaven’s Gate followers.  “Words fail,” Jones simply explains, and we can’t help but wonder how things may have changed had Odie understood what Jones wanted from him prior to the mass suicide.  And how would the present be different had Dennis not neglected his son, P.G. chose not to steal the Lipsy’s car, or Winnie decided against giving up her first-born?  The collective narrator asks:

What if all our involuntary gestures were photographed and then laid side by side?  Would they tell our alternative histories? Reveal thoughts that did not quite become acts but instead worked away secret and silent inside us?

While we ponder these questions, we’ll examine the family dynamic—what’s known and kept secret—and how it relates to community in this story.  We won’t be able to ignore how a close-knit neighborhood can feel suffocating and even cultish.  But not everything’s bleak in this novel.  We’re entranced by the poetry in Blackwood’s lines, which dances off the tongue when read aloud.  We root for the possibility of redemption and become mesmerized by the supernatural.  Hope sweeps over us at those times when the characters’ narratives come together, showing us how they’re connected, and making us believe that while tragedy happens, we can still show compassion toward those who have made mistakes.

New Issues Press
February 2, 2009
$26.00 Hardcover

From the author’s website:

[Scott Blackwood’s] novel We Agreed to Meet Just Here (New Issues Press, 2009) won the AWP Prize for the Novel, the Texas Institute of Letters Award for best fiction, and was named a best book of 2009 by the San Antonio Express-News.  His award-winning collection of stories In the Shadow of Our House was published by SMU Press in 2001. His fiction has appeared most recently in American Short Fiction, the Gettysburg ReviewBoston Review and Southwest Review, and the title story from his collection is featured on the New York Times Book Review’s “First Chapters” website.

To read Blackwood’s story, “Indians,” published by Boston Review, click here.

The word polygamist brings to mind the image of a man with multiple wives, several children, a family that could likely fill three houses.  Place an adverb like lonely before it, and you might begin to wonder how a man in this situation could feel that way.  The title of Brady Udall’s second novel, The Lonely Polygamist, gets the reader thinking before he or she even cracks open the book, hinting at both the story’s premise and its emotional stakes.

Meet Golden Richards: a large man—six-foot-six—with a large family—4 wives, 27 (living) children.  When you add up the long list of problems he faces, it’s easy to understand why he feels, “once or twice each day, that he might be losing his mind.”  First off, his family is falling apart, divided literally—the family is unevenly distributed into three houses—and psychologically—the wives jockey for both position and time spent with Golden, while the children form alliances with each other, casting aside the ones that don’t belong.  And this couldn’t be happening at a worse time.

Golden’s finances are drying up—not the ideal situation when you’re trying to support a family of 32—and he’s forced to take a job 200 miles away, which prevents him from being around his family and maintaining order.  He’s falling out of favor with the church and worries what the consequences are if the community and his family find out that he’s constructing a brothel at this job site.

While he’s away at work, he begins to develop feelings for his boss’s wife, Huila. She represents the life he could be living, if it weren’t for his religious practices.  “Huila was different simply because he—he—had chosen her and she, by some miraculous coincidence, had chosen him.”

But one of the most heart wrenching aspects of Golden Richards is his connection to Glory, Daughter #9, whose tragic death years earlier still causes him regret, shame, and an unbearable sense of loss.

All of these surface-level and emotional conflicts weigh on Golden’s mind, causing him to close himself off from his family.  He tries to solve his problems alone, asking little help from his family, in hopes to keep his deepest secrets hidden.  When he adds it all up, “he has no idea what to do about any of it.”

In terms of craft, one of the most impressive feats Udall pulls off is how he develops characters when there’s such a large cast, without confusing the reader or clouding the story.  Udall weaves together the narratives of three characters—Golden, of course; Trish, wife number four; and Rusty, Golden’s eleven-year-old son—all of whom share feelings of abandonment and neglect, as well as grapple with the sense that they’re outsiders within their own family.

When we’re first introduced to Trish, she arrives at the Virgin County Academy of Hair Design—which is run by Golden’s second wife—to find all of her sister wives there.  While she’s getting her hair shampooed, the wives ambush her and request that she forfeit her upcoming scheduled time with Golden.  It seems like less of a request, though, and more like an order.  The fourth and youngest wife, she’s there simply to offer balance to the family.  In turn, she’s often disregarded.

Not by Rusty, though—the “weird” one, the loner, the boy who sifts through his sisters’ underwear drawers and the locks the family out of the house when he’s forced to share his birthday with his father.  His infatuation with Trish causes him to construct a scheme that will bring them together.  While his relationship with Golden is compared to Golden’s relationship with his father, Rusty doesn’t react the same way to neglect that Golden did.  Instead of yearning for the father-son connection, Rusty strives for more distance between them.  The result of which ends in disaster.

Udall shows compassion for his characters by focusing on what they think and how they react to their circumstances, rather than vilifying their beliefs.  Polygamy serves as context for the premise, and not the heart of the story.  Because first and foremost, Udall is a storyteller.  This isn’t to say that his prose lacks elegance or can be considered simplistic.  Absolutely not.  The writing is crisp and flows at a smooth clip, blending humor with the heartbreaking tenderness of what it means to be a family.  The language doesn’t distract the reader from the story; rather, it enhances the content of the narratives.  Expect to see this book on several top ten lists at year’s end.  It’s both a compelling story and a work of art.

W.W. Norton & Company
May 3, 2010
$26.95 hardcover

Image by Adam Rosenlund

Brady Udall is the acclaimed author of the novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, which has been translated into 18 different languages, and the short story collection, Letting Loose the Hounds.  His work has appeared in The Paris Review, GQ, Esquire, among others, and his story, “Buckeye the Elder,” won Playboy‘s College Fiction Contest in 1994.  The Lonely Polygamist–his third book, second novel–will be available everywhere May 3rd.  Udall teaches in the MFA program at Boise State University.

To read Udall’s 1998 Esquire article, “The Lonely Polygamist,” click here.

As its title suggest, Life Goes to the Movies blurs the line between reality and that which takes place on the big screen.  Peter Selgin’s second book of fiction—first novel—explores the delusions and detachments of its characters, as well as their search for identity in the midst of chasing their dreams, at an existential time in American history.

Set primarily in New York, following the Vietnam War, the novel stars Nigel DiPoli and Dwaine Fitzgibbon, two aspiring filmmakers who begin their journey together in art school.  While Nigel is the point-of view character, the story focuses on the antics and rantings of Dwaine—D for death, W for war, A for anarchy, I for insane, N for nightmare, E for end of the world.

Dwaine’s self-created acronym points to his tour of duty in Vietnam and how those events affected him.  Serving as a medic, he witnessed death first-hand and was unable to save the lives of men in his platoon.  Guilt and blame weigh on him following the war, and he refuses to share explicit details of the experience with Nigel, saying only that, “Vietnam was like an exploding dog.”

Dwaine constantly puts up walls, keeping Nigel at a close distance.  The information he’s willing to divulge—family history, for one—seems made up; or, at least, Nigel’s unable to tell if Dwaine’s quoting lines from movies or telling the truth.  This, however, doesn’t disparage Nigel.

His first glimpse of Dwaine evokes comparisons to the rough-and-tumble actors he grew up idolizing.  At this time, Nigel ponders, “There’s something altogether dark about him, what exactly I can’t say, but it’s darker than this sheet of paper I’ve just finished covering with charcoal.” The mystery of who Dwaine is and what he’s been through adds to the appeal.  Nigel follows him to skid row, Hollywood, and a number of low-paying, somewhat film-related jobs, chasing their dream of making movies that matter.

Through all of this, tensions—sexually, between the two of them, and competitively, as they both are infatuated with the same woman—begin to grow and Dwaine’s charm seems to wear thin.  Their ideologies on life and film conflict, widening the gap between them.  Nigel believes a movie is an escape from reality, that its “purpose…is to make life less real, less boring.”  Dwaine, however, believes “movies should make life more real, less phony, that not only are they capable of changing the world, movies should change it.”

Nigel is conflicted about his place in the world.  He wants to stay in New York and live out his dream of making films with Dwaine, though he yearns for love and stability, too. Going back home to Connecticut seems to him like defeat, a cop-out of sorts.  On a visit to his parents’ house, his angst toward the malaise of living back in his hometown surfaces:

After two years in New York I found Barnum unbearable…Compared to those of New York, the streets of my hometown looked gutted and radioactive, as if a nuclear bomb had been dropped there, one of those bombs that levels dreams but leaves buildings and people standing…There was nothing worth filming here.

The writing in Life Goes to the Movie definitely fits the bill.  Selgin excels at blending cinematic imagery into a literary narrative.  Each chapter paints a vivid picture of setting, character, and action, setting the scenes with beautifully written establishing shots and smooth transitions that resemble fade-ins or slow dissolves.  It’s like watching a movie unfold on the page.

From his website:

Peter Selgin is the author of two books of fiction, including his first book of short stories, Drowning Lessons, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction and published by the University of Georgia Press in 2008. His autobiographical novel, Life Goes to the Movies, was twice a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and second place winner for the AWP Award for the Novel, before being published in May of 2009 by Dzanc Books. Selgin is also the author of two books on the craft of fiction writing, including By Cunning & Craft: Sound Advice and Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers (Writers Digest Books, 2006) and 180 Ways to Save a Novel: Matters of Vital Concern to Fiction Writers (forthcoming from Writers Digest Books, April 2010).

For more information and to read excerpts of his work, please visit his website.

The true sign of a good story is that it’s difficult to summarize in a few paragraphs.  When a novel has such depth, so many layers, that it sticks with you, makes you consider its emotional impact on both the characters and the reader, you know you’ve found a story worth revisiting.  C.E. Morgan has accomplished this in her beautifully written debut, All the Living (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

In terms of plot, the novel is pretty straightforward: Aloma, a young woman with virtually no familial ties, agrees to move in with her boyfriend, Orren, on his family’s tobacco farm—this following a fatal car accident involving his mother and brother.  Raised by her aunt and uncle and sent to boarding school during her formative years, Aloma is thrust into a situation where she’s expected to adopt the role of housewife, while Orren attempts to keep the farm afloat in the midst of a severe summer drought.

Set in rural Kentucky in the 1980s, this story shows how desire and love can be confused in the face of loss and loneliness.  There are two houses on this farm: the old one, which is where Orren has decided they’ll stay; and the new one, where Orren’s mother and brother lived before the accident.  It’s easy to assume why Orren doesn’t want to stay in the new house.  He’s clinging to what he’s lost, and he seems determined to preserve the memory of his family by leaving the new house alone and by doing everything he can to sustain the farm.  In doing so, he inadvertently neglects Aloma, putting their future together in doubt.

Initially, Aloma doesn’t see why they can’t move into the new house.  She doesn’t know why Orren’s attention is more devoted to a dying cause than to her.  It could have to do with the fact that she doesn’t share the same notion of loss that he does.  Reflecting on the death of her parents, never having known them, she reveals ambivalence toward loss:

As a child, she’d tried to invent the feeling of loss inside of her.  But like the dead, the feeling simply wasn’t there.  It was not that her uncle and aunt filled up the space that her parents vacated; it was just that the empty space was fine as it was and no more hurtful than being born with four fingers on one hand instead of five.  It was just a lack she sought didn’t mean anything.

The inability to connect emotionally aside, Aloma has good reason to wonder about Orren’s sincerity.  When he proposed, he said: “You gonna be my wife or what?”  She responded, fittingly, with a joke: “Sure, but don’t get too stuck on me—I’m not long for this place.”

At this time, in this old-fashioned farm town, the idea of a couple living together out of wedlock is looked at as being taboo.  In her first trip to the grocery store, she requests that the clerk put her purchases on Orren’s credit account.  When the clerk begins to pry about her relationship to Orren, Aloma doesn’t humor her by answering the questions.  Morgan uses silence to build tension in the scene, releasing it when Aloma decides to pay cash for the groceries.

Tension arises in many forms throughout the novel: the growing strain of Aloma’s and Orren’s relationship, the financial impact of the drought, and the introduction of another man who causes Aloma to question Orren’s love, among others.  Bell Johnson is the preacher at the church where Aloma is hired to play piano.  When the monotony of spending her waking hours as a pseudo-housewife becomes too unbearable, Aloma retreats to the church, her sanctuary, where she’s able to sit at the piano and play—her only outlet.  Seeing Bell more frequently than Orren sparks desire in her heart, and she begins to lust after the preacher.

Bell takes a liking to her, as well.  While talking to her about the drought—its persistence and the farmers trying to wait it out—he says, “What looks like patience tastes like despair.”  It’s difficult not to question his intentions.  He seems to be enabling her into entertaining thoughts of passion—though he’s unaware of her relationship to Orren, he’s still a man of God; but also, he’s only a man.  Aloma becomes conflicted.  She’s not sure what to do about her relationship, she fears what will happen if Bell finds out she’s living with Orren in sin, and she’s tempted to act on lustful urges.

While the story by itself is layered enough to sustain the interest of readers from all levels, what stands out in this novel is the way it’s written.  The rhythm in Morgan’s prose feels very natural.  The descriptions of the land and the insight we get from Aloma follow a musical cadence that help capture the character’s mood, without breaking the narrative dream.  The rich dialect of the characters’ dialogue is so spot on it makes you want to read the exchanges out loud in a southern drawl.