Book Review: The Heming Way

August 3, 2011

The Heming Way: How to Unleash the Booze-Inhaling, Animal-Slaughtering, War-Glorifying, Hairy-Chested, Retro-Sexual Legend Within… Just Like Papa!

By Marty Beckerman

Published May 27, 2011

Infected Press

90 pp.

ISBN 0-970-06294-X

Reviewed July 31, 2011

In my time as a book critic, I’ve heard a lot of arguments about the dominance of white male authors in the popular culture – and if you had to pick the male-est of those authors, it would without question be Ernest Hemingway. Famous in literary circles for his sparse prose, tragically flawed protagonists and views on the generations lost from the war, Hemingway is also an author repeatedly criticized as overly masculine, misogynistic and homophobic. Still others have accused the Hemingway image as being a construction entirely apart from the man himself, with F. Scott. Fitzgerald biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli declaring the man his own greatest fictional creation.

But is that really such a bad thing? Not according to Marty Beckerman, who leaps to Papa’s defense in his parody/self-help book “The Heming Way.” Compared to the way we live today in our world of wireless Internet connections and malt beverages, the attitudes of Hemingway – a man who drank eight different types of alcohol for breakfast, sought the great adrenaline rush of hunting both beasts and men, and was so proud of his way of life that he was the only one who could end it – seems a marvelous alternative. In mapping these extremes, Beckerman not only delivers a brief and hilarious biography of the author but artfully twists it into a critique on modern society.

Beckerman lays out the case for Hemingway as “a great writer, a great hunter, a great fisherman, a great womanizer, a great drunkard, and a great man – but mostly a great drunkard” by regaling the reader with tales of the author’s exploits. He tells you how to hunt like Hemingway (pick your guns well, cook what you kill, don’t bring women along), how to drink like Hemingway (on safari, in wartime, and with your hungover ten-year-old son) and how to pursue women like Hemingway (marry often, swapping out as their psycho levels rise and they lose their taste for your beard and vomiting friends).

The humor here comes from the extremity of viewpoints presented, as well as how over-the-top Beckerman gets in embracing those viewpoints. He presents Hemingway in his own words and then almost immediately illustrates the flaws in those words with even more quotes, but never dares to question them even as they grow absurd. Of course Hemingway’s drinking burdened him with massive health problems, but how else could he reach such heights as shooting himself in the legs during a fishing trip? And of course Papa’s “outward misogyny” was just an offshoot of the harsh realities of war, not repressed homosexuality! (So what if there are eight or ten quotes to the contrary, the man’s balls overwhelm those!)

It would be easy to dismiss the book as nothing but a list of Hemingway jibes, but Beckerman’s commitment to the format is impressive. Much as he did in the excellent 2008 political dissection “Dumbocracy,” Beckerman backs up his jokes with considerable research, regularly sourcing Hemingway’s own writing as well as a variety of biographies and scholarly studies. The format, reminiscent of a Cracked article, also earns its laughs by inserting some biting comments underneath Hemingway photos periodically inserted into the text. (Particular favorite: Hemingway’s quote “Love is just another dirty lie” followed immediately with his wedding photo and the tip “Do not include the previous quote in your vows.)

And even as parody, there’s a sense that it might be sitting on something deeper. that Particularly as the book heads toward the end, there’s an odd seriousness that emerges from the parody, almost a rant taking over as our modern sense of safety is compared to Hemingway’s style. In fact, in some passages, it almost seems like he’s seriously viewing that style as the lesser of two evils:

“And we’ve become rich in the currency of cowardice. We have so many things and so few experiences. We are desperate to live as long as possible, not as large as possible. We are so afraid to say goodbye to the world that we never say hello. We are numbed in our high-def, wi-fi cocoons, eager for materialistic possessions – the newest, fastest, shiniest gadgets – instead of a fitting end to a life well-lived. If Papa hadn’t killed himself out of despair in 1961, he would kill himself out of disgust today.”

It’s impossible to say what Papa would have thought of this book (though based on history, he’d likely knock the author on his back with one punch) but the end result would probably have involved a laugh and six shared drinks. Beckerman has kicked a breath of fresh air into the Hemingway mythos fifty years after Papa ended his life, and “The Heming Way” should appeal to fans of its source material and anyone looking for a good joke. It’s well-researched, incredibly funny, and just the impetus you’ve been looking for to bring Wild Turkey and six grenades on your next fishing trip.

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Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

May 4, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes

By Sarah Vowell

Published March 22, 2011

Riverhead Books

256 pp.

ISBN 1-594-48787-1

Reviewed May 4, 2011

If Sarah Vowell has a knack for anything, it’s for digging the most interesting things out of topics that most casual readers wouldn’t even take a second glance at. A self-described “civics nerd,” she can expound on topics ranging from the lunchroom at Carlsbad Caverns to the “sad sack quality of Canadian chronology” to the diary of President Garfield, and still manage to pull out connections to real life and other history that makes her theories a joy to experience. Her last book, “The Wordy Shipmates,” found dynamic personas in the stereotypically staid environment of Puritan New England, discovering the lively debate that shaped the earliest cities and states in America.

Now in her latest book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” she’s moved from the first states to the last one, seeing how the American spirit of colonization and conversion shaped the fate of Hawaii’s people and culture over the last century and a half. And while the topic’s a bit denser and darker than her earlier work, “Unfamilar Fishes” is another satisfactory addition to the canon further cementing the fact that no one’s writing about history quite like Vowell, and that no one else is making it such an accessible read.

Vowell’s titular “unfamiliar fishes” are the ‘haole’ foreigners who manipulated Hawaii on its path to becoming the fiftieth member of the United States, beginning with the New England missionaries who sought a “bloodless conquest for Christ” in converting the native population and ending with those missionaries’ grandchildren handing the land over to America after overthrowing the last queen. She traces the path of Hawaii’s lost independence through decades of foreigners setting up shop, the diseases and conversions they brought with them, and how the seeds of revolt were sown by the commercial desires of settlers and the gradually decaying base of the monarchy.

In my review of “The Wordy Shipmates” I noted the shift from her travelogue/essay format to a more formal academic feeling, and “Unfamiliar Fishes” does continue the structured approach to her work. While she bounces from past to present in mixing in her own real-life experiences, the narrative remains mostly chronological and straightforward as it goes through Hawaiian history, with regular callbacks to earlier points of importance tying it all together. She’s said she sees her work as a form of journalism, and it’s clear she’s done her research – she dips liberally into the letters and memoirs of the original missionaries, and supports it with the stories told by Hawaiian museum tour guides and scholars.

However, at the same time the book also feels much more unfocused and at times scattershot than “The Wordy Shipmates,” possibly as a consequence of the wider timeframe. With decades of letters and regime changes to cover there’s less time to focus on the story’s more characterful players, as she did with presidential assassins or Puritan colonists. Vowell’s thought process, while always charming in the random connections she makes, shows a bit of strain to maintain the same era while at the same time jumping from the Polynesian Triangle to Voltaire to President McKinley. Given the wide swath of time and generational cast involved, it also wouldn’t have hurt to include family trees of the royalty and missionaries to show just how intertwined this saga was.

That said, these changes don’t do anything to dilute Vowell’s inimitable style or just how readable she makes American history. Vowell has an innate grasp of analogy – she can see a Bible verse on helping Macedonia to the high-fructose corn syrup of American colonization – and an open mind to both sides to see their similarities, as the earliest days of missionary contact becomes “the story of traditionalists squaring off.” And while they are fewer than in other books there are a few figures of particular interest in the history of Hawaii – standouts are Henry Obookiah, one of the earliest Hawaiian converts to to Christianity, and adventurer turned prime minister Henry Murray Gibson – and she makes sure that we spend enough time with them to stand out as characters. Long-time readers of Vowell will also be gratified to see the scenes of her recurring travel partner nephew Owen, now eight years old and with his own own interesting quirks: his goodbye over the phone happens to be “I love you! Don’t die!”

There’s a sense from Owen that he’s been infected with his aunt’s somewhat macabre sense of fascination in American history, and “Unfamiliar Fishes” is yet another example of why Vowell’s unique perspective on history remains infectious to readers as well. It’s a reliable choice for fans of her earlier work and anyone looking for a primer on Hawaiian history – maybe not the best book for the island’s beaches but certainly something to have on hand for the long flight in, so you can understand there’s far more to these islands than sun and garish shirts.


Book Review: Stiff

December 3, 2010

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

By Mary Roach

Published April 21, 2003

W.W. Norton & Company

304 pp.

ISBN 0-393-32482-6

Reviewed December 3, 2010

It’s the great mystery in the universe that we can never know what happens to us after we die. It’s the journey that no one has ever sent a postcard from after taking, the question that has spurred countless philosophers and religions to great discussion, and one that everyone ponders at least once a day. Try as we might to get past it, we can’t avoid the fact that some day we will all find ourselves passing on to something we can never get a hold of, leaving nothing behind but the piece of meat and bone that carried us through our daily grind.

But while the fate of our consciousness after death is one that cannot be measured, the fate of that piece of meat is one that’s easier to quantify – and as Mary Roach shows in “Stiff,” just because a body is dead doesn’t mean its experiences are over. Over the course of history, human corpses have been boiled, mashed, stuck in stews, chopped up, shot to pieces and put to ten thousand other uses across the spectrum of morality. In “Stiff,” Roach unflinchingly explores the myriad and grisly uses these cadavers come to, and in the process weaves a quirky and unique narrative of life after death.

Beginning with a simple curiosity about what happens to human bodies that aren’t simply buried – a “foreign land between the cracks” as the author puts it – “Stiff” follows cadavers through a plethora of final fates. Roach travels to cosmetology schools, decay research facilities and shooting ranges, chronicling how scientists and doctors are using the cadavers to learn and teach things no live subject would ever consent to. She also expands her search to the shocking and bizarre events of the past, going back to experiments to replicate the circumstances of the Crucifixion and just how long a head can survive after it has been severed by a guillotine.

As Roach mentions early on, once a body is donated to science it has no control over where it eventually ends up, and “Stiff” similarly goes in all directions as it explores the various possibilities with a mix of contemporary studies and involved historical research. One chapter that begins in an anatomy lab memorial service for cadavers jumps into a discussion of body snatching in 1700s England, while the next switches between a body left in the sun for three weeks and the origins of arterial embalming. The breadth of the subject means that no stone is left unturned – that is, unless the stone is on a cadaver and being unturned is part of the experiment.

Roach however manages to keep all these disparate links together, chiefly through her entertaining writing style. Thanks to various quips at the historical subjects (the “father of embalming” asked not to be embalmed himself, “though whether this was a function of sanity or insanity was never made clear”) and a legitimate curiosity about those who spend their time around human bodies (“What I do is, I think of them as wax” is one option), it’s hard to ever feel bogged down or lost on her journey. Special praise goes to the transitions between sections and chapters in the way they establish common threads: One chapter ends talking about an organ donor (“H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her”) and the next begins by discussing the idea of souls, which leads to brains as their resting place, which leads to the idea of human head transplants.

If anyone does have trouble going from section to section, it will likely be because of the subject matter rather than the writing – much of “Stiff” is not for those with weak stomachs. The breadth of topics makes it very engrossing, but it regularly teeters to the “gross” part of the equation by turning up experiments like the creation of a two-headed dog (a “lively, puppylike, if not altogether joyous existence” for the new head) and just where human excrement falls into the medicine cabinets of ancient civilizations. “Stiff’s” subject matter tends to be far from polite dinner table conversation, and the odds are good that readers will take a break in between sections such as this decay research observation:

“Arpad walks around to the corpse’s left foot. It is bluish and the skin is transparent. ‘See under the skin? They’re eating the subcutaneous fat. They love fat.’ I see them. They are spaced out, moving slowly. It’s kind of beautiful, this man’s skin with these tiny white slivers embedded just beneath its surface. It looks like expensive Japanese rice paper. You tell yourself these things.”

But despite being confronted with these observations, Roach never backs down from getting close with the cadavers – either whole or in part. While she frequently turns to a dry, Wodehousian black humor there’s also a strong respect for the choice these people made when alive to commit their earthly remains, and observes the bodies with a quiet fascination. She strengthens this commitment by including interviews with several truly devoted experts in the field, ranging from an injury analyst who studies corpses after crashes to a Swedish woman spearheading a movement for human composting. None of her subjects are ghouls who get off on manipulating the dead, but matter-of-fact individuals who happen to work with dead bodies to learn something new.

And that leads to the real strength of “Stiff” – it’s certainly full of fascinating data and presents itself well, but it still carries the appropriate gravitas its subject material deserves. Roach is at all times aware of the fact that her subjects were once alive, and that at the core what’s on the table in front of her is only a few degrees separate from each of us: “We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.” In “Stiff,” Roach shows us that maybe we shouldn’t try to forget it, because even after we’re dead – and possibly destined for a biology class – we’re still innately fascinating.


Book Review: The Imperfectionists

December 1, 2010

The Imperfectionists

By Tom Rachman

Published April 6, 2010

The Dial Press

288 pp.

ISBN 0-385-34366-3

Reviewed December 1, 2010

In my time working for the Daily Cardinal back in college, I probably crossed paths with over a hundred individuals who played some role in making the paper. Some of them remain very close friends of mine, whom I exchange updates with on a regular basis. Others I haven’t seen for years, but I know I could meet up with and fall right back into a familiar groove with or at the very least be offered a couch for an evening. Still others I couldn’t identify by face or name now, but I know if I found myself in conversation with them and we learned that we shared that connection, we’d fill at least five minutes going over old war stories.

A newspaper tends to both attract a wide variety of people, and inspire a mix of emotions in the people who work for it – and that psychic pull is just one of the things that Tom Rachman manages to do so masterfully in “The Imperfectionists.” Centered around an unnamed English language newspaper in Rome, operating in what may well be the twilight of print media, “The Imperfectionists” is a brilliant debut novel that understands the most interesting thing about journalism. It isn’t the circumstances of the business or its efforts to stay relevant in changing times, but the multifaceted and frequently damaged people who make it their trade.

“The Imperfectionists” is split into eleven chapters, each of which focuses on one of the staffers at the unnamed paper. Editor-in-chief Kathleen Solsen struggles to do more with less in the face of the home office’s apathy, while the nitpicky copy editor Herman Cohen lambastes his three-headed copy desk – particularly the wallflower Ruby Zaga – for amateurish edits. The financial officer Abbey Pinnola reluctantly embraces her role as hatchet man, while the business reporter Hardy Benjamin tries to assimilate someone new into life outside her office. Abroad in Cairo and Paris, respective correspondents Winston Cheung and Lloyd Burko are either so far out of their comfort zones it approaches farcical or so mired in their comfort zones they have nothing left to offer.

Readers with journalism backgrounds will certainly find the chapters engagingly familiar – with each character embodying the professions’ archetypes at least in part – but “The Imperfectionists” is by no means restricted to that group. The chapters are focused on each character’s personal dramas, with the newspaper merely lining the cages of their doubts and revelations. Herman eagerly embraces a visit from his oldest friend and tries to get him to write for the paper, only to find that neither of their lives have turned out precisely as they thought – and they come to some surprising realizations about it. Katheen reengages with an old boyfriend in public service, tempted to use him to get inside information on the prime minister’s office – or just get back at her cheating husband. Each vignette is well-fleshed and original, and manages to come to meaningful conclusions all around.

The plotting makes each chapter interesting, but what makes them gripping is how well each character is defined. None of the chapters are in first-person, and Rachman’s voice is apparent in each of them, but you really do feel like you’re hearing a brand new person’s story each time. In some instances, particularly Kathleen’s and Abbey’s, the dialogue continues to flow for pages at a perfectly natural rhythm – these read like conversations real people would have, with small talk skirting around an elephant in the room and reaching conclusions neither party likes. Conversely, chapters on Lloyd and Ruby are more about internal monologues, their insecurities eating away at them as they desperately try to find some validation in work or in life. Ruby’s chapter in particular, mixed with internal asides to herself, has particularly poignant moments:

“To eat or to sleep – the perennial night-shift conundrum. She confronts her dilemma as always, with a tub of Haagen-Dazs on the couch and Tony Bennett on the stereo, volume low. The CD came free with a magazine and has become part of her after-work routine. She has the TV on, too, with the sound off. She watches Ballando con le Stelle without seeing, listens to Tony Bennett without hearing, eats Vanilla Swiss Almond without tasting. Yet the mix is the most splendid she knows.”

Prose like this is reminiscent of some of the finest short stories, and indeed the almost insular feeling of each chapter makes it very feasible to take each one as a single serving without digesting the narrative. As the book progresses, names repeat and the connections become more apparent – the same man ricochets off the paper’s editor-in-chief, copy editor and fervent subscriber in very different ways, a broken friendship indirectly tips over a line of dominoes to start an affair – but for the most part those connections matter because they evoke memories of just how good that character’s chapter was, and poignancy at how damaged they remain.

For as good as these character studies are, there is a central narrative – the origins and future of the paper, the great edifice that churns on oblivious to its staff’s problems, where “what was of the utmost importance yesterday is immaterial today.” The chapters are split up with vignettes on the origins of the paper, the mysterious industrialist Cyrus Ott who abandoned his family in Atlanta to become a publisher and founding editors as damaged as any off the current staff. The reason for the paper’s genesis comes in the last chapter, opened for personal reasons as tragic as any its existing staff has for staying with it – but the revelation is lost on the chapter’s subject, Ott’s grandson, the weak-willed publisher dwelling in an empty mansion with only a basset hound for company. It’s a tragic hammer strike, made even harder by the denouement of the final fifteen pages.

In those last pages, the observation is made that the paper is a “daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species” – and that’s a label that can easily be applied to “The Imperfectionists.” By farming the tightly wound, diverse world of a newsroom, Rachman has created some of the strongest character studies in recent years. It’s heartfelt and complex, all its considerable parts adding up to something greater – much as its staff’s contributions inexplicably bring a paper to life. This is, quite simply, one of the best books of the year.


Back Shelf Review: The Wrestler’s Cruel Study

October 4, 2010

The Wrestler’s Cruel Study

By Stephen Dobyns

Published February 17, 1995

W. W. Norton & Company

432 pp

ISBN 0-393-31212-7

Reviewed September 29, 2010

If you ever go to see a wrestling match, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’re not going in with the belief that you’re going to see a serious athletic contest. Between the outlandish behavior of the participants, the vivid presentation of the ring as a stage and the exaggerated drama of the feuds that evolve between combatants, the image of the sport is geared towards providing a performance rather than any sort of resolution. It’s a long-standing conception that most professional wrestling is fake, the course of each match scripted body slam by body slam for the sake of turning up the cheers.

But is it all entertainment, or when we see two wrestlers grappling at each other are we seeing some form of Socratic dialogue? This concept is just one of many that Stephen Dobyns runs away in “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study,” a novel almost dizzying in how many genres and ideas it manages to cram between its covers. It’s almost impossible to put the title under one category: philosophy meeting pulp novel, a epic poem as enacted by volunteer theater, a book that might win and lose readers in equal measure but is like nothing else on the shelves.

Set in New York, the action is centered on Michael Marmaduke, a muscular blonde Adonis with a gentle heart – a heart unknown to the legion of wrestling fans who known him by his stage name of Marduk the Magnificent, reenacting the battles of ancient Babylon under the roof of Madison Square Garden. When his fiancee Rose White goes missing, Michael sets out to find her in a quest that leads him to get involved with a multitude of street gangs and religious cults (or some combination of the two) and grow to confront how much of himself he’d have to give up to become a real hero.

The plot presents itself as the typical hero-rescues-damsel scenario, but there is not a single thing that is typical about this novel. From the beginning scene where Rose is abducted from her apartment by two gorillas – one of whom is wearing a Walkman – it twists and turns its way through a variety of different sideplots and characters. Marmaduke finds himself traveling under the city in search of clues, battling ex-wrestlers who have so blurred the lines between their personas and themselves that they’ve nearly become animals. The detectives investigating Rose’s disappearance are the worst of partners, unable to stand the other man for a second, and yet the longer they’re partnered the more they resemble each other. A homeless man named Beetle mumbles a Greek mythology-shaded story that no one wants to listen to – when they’re not busy with their daily lives of hunting aquavit or begging or new apartments, they’re preoccupied with the whereabouts of an angel- and demon-headed golden coin.

Much as the book is full of random details, it’s also packed with various influences and homages to other styles of literature. Marmaduke’s quest has something of the air of a picaresque novel, if the roguish hero of that novel spent all his time trying very hard not to offend. The vignettes of its supporting cast make up an urban comedy in the vein of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” or Gilbert Sorrentino’s “Crystal Vision,” but it also has the exaggerated sensibilities of a comic book and the hard-broiled air of a dime-store detective novel.. Such a use of elements sounds unfocused on paper, but “Cruel Study” thrives on this mix because it never gives itself too heavily to one – whenever the book seems to slide into wackiness, a philosophical discussion adds an extra layer.

And thanks to its language, the layers of narrative manage to avoid collapsing on each other. Dobyns, who has written several books of poetry, infuses the prose of “Cruel Study” with an experimental, almost joyful spirit. Written in present tense the book’s language regularly feels as if the writer is addressing the reader directly, both leading the reader along the story’s path and regularly stopping to ask them why a character is pursuing this course of action. For example, take this view on Marmaduke’s character midway through his quest:

“For twenty-five years his life was a simple as a ball rolling down a hill. He had brains he never used, emotions he never explored. If vanilla was his favorite flavor, it was because no one had offered him tutti-frutti. One should feel sorry for those even-tempered people for whom puberty is no more than a mild merry-go-round ride. Their lives are as smooth as Nebraska. Instead of burning with a hard and gemlike flame, they simmer like a bowl of Cream of Wheat. But even to them something can happen – a child can die, a loved one can be taken away – and they change. ‘He became a different person,’ we hear people say. But has he intrinsically changed or has he dredged up something from his own unexplored potential?”

This passage also gets to the book’s central questions of duality and identity, a debate further accentuated by periodic first-person chapters ascribed to Primus Muldoon, Marmaduke’s trainer who spouts Nietzsche quotes and the philosophy of man’s “Gimmick” from underneath a mustache that would put a pushbroom to shame. Muldoon sees the persona of the wrestler – their “Gimmick” – as simply a more overstated version of the Gimmicks everyone carries in their lives, and waxes poetic on how you can peel away a man’s layers of Gimmicks like an onion. These sections are even more stylized than others, but work because they’re presented as coming from such a pompous character.

So do all these elements make “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study” a good book? Well, it’s certainly a unique one – the characters mostly distance themselves from conventional fiction archetypes and the philosophies are pleasantly varied – but it’s also a book that will likely alienate as many readers as it attracts. The stylized nature of the writing might strike one reader as too florid and distracting, while another will admire the interplay of wording. And characters like Marmaduke or Muldoon, presented in such a larger-than-life manner, could be reasonably interpreted as cartoonish and narrowly defined.

But really, that seems appropriate for the kind of book “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study” is – a book that centers on duality and questions of identity isn’t designed to please everyone who reads it. As much as it defies classification, it also defies a thumbs up or thumbs down rating, and one that will speak more to the personal tastes of a reader. But it is without question a book that deserves to be tasted, as colorful as an top-billed wrestling match and as varied as a Philosophy 101 reading list.

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Book Review: Boneshaker

September 22, 2010

Boneshaker

By Cherie Priest

Published September 29, 2009

Tor Books

416 pp.

ISBN 0-765-31841-5

Reviewed September 22, 2010

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I was a heavy fantasy gamer for many years, proudly bearing the mantle of Dungeon Master in college and hosting countless tabletop strategy games in my basement rather than attending most high school events. One of the most frequently played was a Games Workshop turn-based strategy game called “Mordheim,” where players controlled warbands scouring through a medieval city devastated by a massive meteor. Inhabited by mercenaries, mutants and the undead, it was a setting that contained countless stories, with ruined Gothic buildings full of ten fatal missteps for every piece of treasure.

I mention this chiefly to give some context as to why I enjoyed Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker” so much, as the world it paints was comfortably close to my best gaming memories. Behind the walls of a corroded city, refugees and mad scientists scavenge enough to make a living, conflicting daily with gangrenous zombies in a manner that hits the high notes of a nuanced roleplaying gameworld. And the fact that this setting complements well fleshed-out characters and cinematic action certainly didn’t hurt, all combining to make “Boneshaker” one of the most enjoyable and energetic titles in recent memory.

The walled-off metropolis in question is Seattle, Washington of 1880, a city literally eaten away from the inside. Trying to invent a machine that could be used for mining gold in the frozen north, Leviticus Blue created the Boneshaker, a massive drilling contraption capable of tunneling with great force – as Seattle’s residents discovered when its trial run cut a devastating swath under the streets. It not only collapsed buildings and killed dozens but unleashed a mysterious deadly gas known as the Blight, turning its victims into “rotters” who rose from their graves and devoured the flesh of the living. Unable to do more than contain the Blight, residents walled Seattle’s downtown off, creating a ghost town choked with rotters and poisonous yellow gas.

Now sixteen years later, Blue’s widow Briar Wilkes has been trying to make a living for herself and her son Ezekiel (“Zeke”) outside the walls, doing her best to keep the past buried. Zeke however has reached the age where he’s seeking real answers, and in typical teenager fashion decides to seek them out himself. When he makes the decision to venture into the city and learn the truth about his father, it falls to Briar to bring him home from the mix of rotters, raiders and long-dormant secrets that are locked behind Seattle’s wall.

That description only touches on what’s going on in “Boneshaker,” which is nothing if not ambitious in its content. The book has its footing firmly in the steampunk world – clean air is pumped into the city by massive tubes, airships farm the Blight gas for raw drug materials – but it’s also aiming to sweep several other genres in. Alternate history comes in with the fact that the Civil War spans two decades and counting thanks to foreign involvement and technical advancements, and several of its characters have been driven west by dark pasts tied to that conflict. And with packs of decayed rotters coming in every few chapters, moaning and swarming in packs, the book is also striving for zombie atmosphere in the traditional Romero fashion.

All of these influences working together could easily make a book unwieldy (see “Android Karenina” for a key example) but “Boneshaker” manages to make its disparate elements work surprisingly well together. Priest never sacrifices the narrative’s flow for the sake of showing off, and even when the introduction of new elements seems abrupt – such as airships or a cybernetic hand – they quickly give way to explaining the history and motivations of the characters who possess them. Even when characters are covered in full suits of armor, using sonic cannons to blast away swarming rotters, it’s not possible to lose sight of who’s inside the armor and how they wound up in that position.

A large part of this has to do with the book’s unswerving focus on the relationship between Briar and Zeke, and fantastical elements aside this is an incredibly solid depiction of a single mother raising a stubborn son. The relationship is defined early in a tense debate over Zeke’s heritage, and for the majority of the book the chapters alternate between Briar and Zeke’s journeys through the city, a technique “Boneshaker” expertly uses to expand their traits. Briar is reminiscent of Frances McDormand in “North Country,” a woman who bears the pressures and prejudices of a tough world – but with the spine to take out anything that gets between her and her son. Zeke is perfectly characterized as a petulant teenager, the sort who thinks he knows everything but whose bravado comes up short against the real world.

And both characters are readily tested in the unforgiving ruins of Seattle, which give rise to a series of wonderful scenes that play out for the reader as smoothly as if they were on screen. Both Briar and Zeke seem to find themselves in a life-or-death situation every chapter, and in each case the writing is tight enough to pull the reader from scene to scene with just the right amount of detail. The scenes where Briar is confronting the rotters have all the oppressive tension of the best zombie movies, particularly when she realizes one of her traveling companions might have taken one breath of Blight too many. And on Zeke’s side of the action, an airship that might take him home ends up taking him back down in the most dramatic fashion, and every bump and knock comes through.

But the best sign of “Boneshaker’s” success isn’t just the scenes it depicts – it’s drawing the reader into its characters and world so well that they want to hear more stories told. Priest is already planning to oblige by expand this world into its own universe dubbed “The Clockwork Century” – the second volume “Dreadnought” is in fact set for release next week – and the promise of following this first volume even tangentially is enough to keep going. “Boneshaker” is an ambitious, detailed and utterly rewarding novel, and it burrows into the reader’s interest every bit as deep as the titular machine.


Book Review: Pacific Agony

May 24, 2010

Pacific Agony: A Novel

By Bruce Benderson

Published October 30, 2009

Semiotext(e)

183 pp.

ISBN 1-584-35082-2

Reviewed May 24, 2010

At the time of writing this review, I have been a resident of Portland, Oregon for nearly two years. Desperate to get out of the Midwest I chose the city based on random whims and recommendations, and have since fallen completely in love with the Pacific Northwest. Bordered by mountains and forests, containing a hodgepodge of architectural styles and rife with solid beers and bookstores, it comes across as a welcome change from endless farmland. As much as I love my adopted homeland, however, I’m not blind to its varied faults, most of which center around how smugly self-satisfied it seems with itself as forward-thinking despite being overwhelmingly suburban and Caucasian.

I’m certainly not alone in writers pointing this out: Christian Lander of “Stuff White People Like” dubbed Portland “a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario … whereby a homogenous group of people is left in an area with no one to keep them in check,” and local author Katherine Dunn said in one “Slice” column from Willamette Week that she sees the city as “a swamp of cracker bigotry dotted by islands of attempted sanity.” And now, with his novel “Pacific Agony,” Bruce Benderson has presented possibly the most brutal evisceration of the Pacific Northwest’s culture – and presented it so well residents will have a hard time taking too much offense.

Benderson’s voice for this criticism is Reginald Fortiphton, a writer of middling success who is contracted to write a travel book based on his impressions of West Coast hubs such as Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. However, Fortiphton’s penchant for aggravating his hosts, popping morphine tablets and lusting after dangerous young men quickly prove he’s a poor choice to write positively of anything. The novel – presented as Fortiphton’s final manuscript to his editor – presents a caustic and biting assessment of the region, as he blasts its suburban comforts with unrestrained vitriol.

Despite having a name more at home in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, Fortiphton is a character with little in the way of good humor or even likability. He treats his assignment of viewing the region’s landmarks as a license to assault them, dismissing Seattle as “a squeaky-clean dormitory for fledgling dot-com-ers” and Eugene as a “minor city… true to that stunning, almost contemptuous neutrality.” When forced out into the rain to smoke, he takes a morbid view of it, proud of his “lethal weapon” and spitting at the restrictions such a supposedly liberal region implements. It’s unapologetic, and very refreshing.

This might make the book seem like nothing but railing, but “Pacific Agony” is special more for what it says about its characters than the region. As I mentioned in my review of his excellent “Sex and Isolation,” one of the things that distinguishes Benderson as a writer is his unabashed support and sympathy for a lifestyle most people would cross the street to avoid. Fortiphton disregards the touristy locations to seek out anarchists, primitivists and street hustlers, and Benderson affectionately offers up some prime examples – an anarchistic street hustler named Judas, a heroin addict descended from the Quileute tribe, a Finnish centenarian with a Communist past. As in “Sex and Isolation,” there is palpable nostalgia for a more dangerous past, as when Fortiphton bitterly curses the monotony of his whitewashed surroundings:

“Wasn’t anyone aware that the incestuous urges, Oedipal hostility and sepulchral disciplines of family life could only implode if they were kept in such an isolated state? Didn’t anybody but me miss the glory days of public transportation and public space when the city was indeed a spectacle to walk through and provided the flâneur his wonderfully tainted bath?”

And bathing in this environment leads Fortiphton to become even more depressed and delusional, eventually becoming convinced a conspiracy of Interzone proportions is being spearheaded by his editors. The last chapters of “Pacific Agony” take on a more surreal edge, as Fortiphton completely abandons his schedule and takes up residence with the homeless of British Columbia and supplanting his morphine reserves with “other substances that I will not describe in detail.” It does make the book feel somewhat unfocused, but the language also becomes more haunting as he weaves Native American myth and natural beauty into his “great, sweeping gestures of fatality.”

The book’s acerbic tones and harsh themes may be off-putting to some but Benderson cleverly balances them through the use of footnotes, presented as manuscript comments by Fortiphton’s editor Narcissa Whitman Applegate. A proud historian and descendant of Oregon pioneers, Applegate grows more and more outraged as the book progresses, to the point where she almost gloats when his lusts get the better of him. Her defensive remarks clarifying the thriving industries and historical culture in Eugene and Oregon City forms a hilarious contrast to Fortiphton’s rants, and the haughty tone she takes serves to unintentionally prove her author’s point on the region’s collective stick-up-the-ass.

In her closing remarks, Applegate lambastes the book as “A compendium of perversity and viciousness, full of distortions, sarcasm – and even obscenities!” That’s certainly all there in “Pacific Agony,” but what she clearly misses is the fantastic phrasing Benderson displays, and how the cracked lens he holds up to the region also cuts to the core of his narrator’s soul. It’s certainly not a book that will serve as an argument for moving to the Pacific Northwest, but it’s a stirringly well-done character study and a wake-up call our staid culture could use more of.