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book review — Lo's Diary - Pia Pera

"It struck me…that I simply did not know a thing about my darling's mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate—dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me." —Humbert Humbert, from "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov, 1955

"I feel like I'm suffocating with horror, so finally I say O.K., O.K., let's go on with the hotels and the prix-fixe menus and lots of screwing. What's the difference in the end? Isn't it as good a way as any of passing this shitty time from now until I'm eighteen? Isn't it obvious that ultimately all of us are born into the prison of childhood, and freedom doesn't come till later, after we've sweated our way through it?" —Dolores Maze, from "Lo's Diary" by Pia Pera, 1999

About 40 pages into the childhood diary of Mrs. Dolores Schlegel (nee Maze, nee Haze), during a scene in which our heroine tortures her pet hamster to blistering death on a light bulb, many readers may stop caring about what is going on in young Lo's mind. At this point, there's a fairly good chance that the musings of anyone familiar with Vladimir Nabokov's masterwork "Lolita" will instead turn to the pathetic hubris of Pia Pera's undertaking. Although "Lo's Diary" is ostensibly a feminist rebuttal to Humbert Humbert's (here dubbed "Humbert Guibert") self-confessed theft of Lolita's childhood voice, Pera visits a much less graceful horror upon her—cramming her throat with the vitriol of a woman decades older, and raping her of any small vestige of humanity or possibility of sympathy.

At age 12, Dolores Maze (Nabokov's Haze-y nymphet leaden into an earthbound nympho by the bumble of a single consonant) is a skilled sadist. Schooled at the knee and beer-moistened lips of her father, Lo learns the handy craft of zapping little lizards to a crisp in homemade electric chairs. After the untimely death of this upstanding parental figure, poor little Lo, bound into Pera's laughably literal Freudian machinations, sets her sights a bit wider. She begins by torturing the aforementioned hamster, soon moving on to meek schoolmates, her pudgy, doomed mother (referred to throughout as "Shitmom" and "Plasticmom"), European boarders with nymphet fixations—anything or anyone that might dare leave themselves vulnerable to her, or offer the slightest bit of affection. While Pera obviously has crafted this hypersexual little brute as the embodiment of her interpretation of the "new feminist consciousness" touted on the book jacket, it seems unlikely that the National Organization of Women will be hastening to tout Lo's anal penetration of her comatose 30-something-year-old stepfather/lover with a fountain pen as the apex of their achievement.

It is simply astonishing that someone who so obviously studied Nabokov's "Lolita"—painstakingly (though incredibly ineptly) substituting tit-for-tat Lo's address "231 Grassy Street, Goatscreek" for the original "342 Lawn Street, Ramsdale," Gerry Sue Filthy for Clare Quilty, scene for scene, act for act—could have so utterly missed the meat of the novel. The enduring appeal of "Lolita" is not due to literary America's ongoing love affair with sociopathic pedophiles, but rather the fact that Nabokov's wordcraft was so finely honed that he was able to sculpt a sympathetic, verging on beloved, creature out of such a wretch. His language is packed thick, sultry and smart—each sentence constructed sturdily enough to hold several times its weight. Through Humbert's eyes, the reader grasps the vast terrain of post-WWII America as viewed simultaneously by a man blissfully and criminally in love, an effete European intellectual, a smug and hilarious social satirist, a madman and an eternally arrested adolescent.

Humbert advises himself early on in "Lolita": "As greater authors than I have put it: 'Let readers imagine' etc." Unfortunately, that must have been on a page that Pia Pera skipped, as there is not a scrap of subtlety to her Lo or her language. Of Humbert, Lo writes, "I go straight home, where Humbert is waiting at the door. He can't stand the slightest lateness. He's getting a hooked nose: sign of old age or increasing rapaciousness?" Ignoring for the moment the gross overestimation of a 12-year-old dropout's vocabulary and the ham-fisted symbolism, this excerpt simply underscores the one-dimensionality of Pera's Lo. While even Nabokov's Humbert is magnanimous enough to admit to the possibility of further depth to his darling's mental processes, Pera is not as kind to her charge. This Lolita exists strictly on a physical plane, determining worth by how much sexual pleasure can be doled out to her preternaturally responsive little body. A playground pole which gifts her with an "electronic atomic supersonic orgasm" is determined more deserving of her respect than Humbert, who is quickly gauged a worthless bore in bed. To illustrate Lo's ultimate disdain, the heavy-handed Pera excavates the corpse of a feigned toothache from the early pages of "Lolita," and leaves us with a final snapshot of a drugged and bare-gummed Humbert, spread-eagled with ink dripping out of his ass. Ah, poetry.

There is precious little reward for casual readers who might choose to slog through this amateurish prose; Nabokov's fans will no doubt turn a deaf ear to its hysterics. Pia Pera has perpetrated a far greater harm upon young Lolita than Nabokov or Humbert ever did. They may have muted her voice, but Pera has stolen her soul.

(originally published at CitySearch)

book review — Close Range: Wyoming Stories - Annie Proulx

In the late 1990s, it seems nearly impossible to lead a romantic life. The terrain is clearly laid out in city blocks, well-demarcated freeways, and cubicles distinguished only by the variance of screensavers and desktop wallpapers. Sales of sport-utility vehicles have far exceeded any rational reckoning, but the toughest obstacles these trucks tackle are the speed bumps at the mall parking lot. The mud on your neighbor's Eddie Bauer boots was hard won in a scuffle over the last bonsai at the Home Depot nursery; children grow up dreaming of being the next Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, or Martha Stewart. No one wants to be a cowboy anymore.

But just as the last Marlboro Man billboards are dismantled and overlaid with Surgeon General-approved tips on how to lead a healthy, safe lifestyle, "Close Range: Wyoming Stories" arrives to keep the campfire burning. In this collection of 11 short stories, Annie Proulx creates a contemporary relevance for the sons and daughters of the Western plains. With harsh, elegant prose, she lays bare the lives of ranch hands, rodeo cowboys, and sheepherders, carving raw, painfully human portraits of a people most often reduced to romanticized caricatures silhouetted against a setting sun.

There's not a whole lot of open plain left in America at the end of the 20th century, and the characters inhabiting Proulx's landscape are viewed by the encroaching outside world as anachronisms and nuisances. In the opening story, "The Half-Skinned Steer," failed cattle rancher Mero Corn finds himself on a road he'd never anticipated. Winding up "sixty years later as an octogenarian vegetarian widower pumping an Exercycle in the middle of a colonial house in Woolfoot, Massachusetts," Mero is jarred out of his anesthetized life by a phone call from the daughter-in-law of Rollo, the brother he'd left behind decades before. After losing too many cattle to the rough terrain, Rollo had sold the ranch, Ten Sleep, to an Australian businessman bent on starting an Australian/Western-themed tourist trap. Hired to run the ranch in exchange for a half-interest in the business, Rollo met an unlikely end: After a lifetime of running cattle and fending off marauding lions, he was laid open "belly to breakfast" by an emu he was moving between barns. Summoned back to this half-forgotten life, Mero begins a stuporous four-day journey by Cadillac, winding through reveries of a long-ago evening spent with his Everclear-soaked father and his horsy, tall-tale-spinning girlfriend. While his recollection of this conversation juts through, sharp and lucid, the rest of his memories of that life are so thickly scarred over with time and distance, he forgets where to turn off for the ranch's entrance. In a cruel twist of fate, his life is claimed by the ravages of the land he spent a lifetime trying to escape.

Damned to a life of ranch servitude, saddled by her oversized physique, and lacking the audacity possessed by the sister and brother who had bolted to the lights of Las Vegas, "The Bunchgrass Edge of the World"'s barrel-bodied heroine, Ottaline Touhey, dreams of escape. Seen as the family disgrace, and verbally humiliated on a daily basis by her war-soured father, Aladdin, "She wanted to be away, wearing red sandals with cork soles, sitting in the passenger seat of a pearl-colored late-model pickup, drinking from a bottle shaped like a hula girl. When would someone come for her?" With nothing to do once the day's work is finished but all the staring into the distance that can be done in a lifetime, Ottaline's despair grows so large that it takes on a voice of its own. But as she carries on conversations with the wrecked John Deere 4030 in the ranch's gravel quarry, she eventually reaps the rewards of patience. As her 96-year-old grandfather has learned, "The main thing in life was staying power. That was it: stand around long enough you'd get to sit down."

While periodically leavened with a rough sort of comic relief borne of tall-tales and gallows-tinged yarns, the collection ends on a deeply bittersweet and visceral note with the stunning "Brokeback Mountain." This 1998 National Magazine Award winner is the moving tale of two cowboys who discover perfect, impossible, and ultimately destructive passion borne out of lonely nights working as herders on Brokeback Mountain. While the two never mention the physicality of their relationship, save for one, "I'm not no queer," volleyed back quickly with, "Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody's business but ours," the coupling of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist that summer is neither insignificant nor fleeting for either of them. When, four years later, Jack comes to visit Ennis and his wife and children, it proves painfully evident to both that their attraction had not been merely endemic of their isolation.

"A hot jolt scalded Ennis and he was out on the landing pulling the door closed behind them. Jack took the stairs two and two. They seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying, son of a bitch, son of a bitch, then, and easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together, and hard...." In the end, each man pays an unfathomable price for this impossible and inescapable love. As Ennis learns, "If you can't fix it you've got to stand it." Proulx's characters are subject to the cruelty of the terrain in a way that is seemingly irreconcilable with the leisure and convenience-oriented society of late 20th-century America. But as long as there is land to roam and tend, the men and women of the Wyoming territory will carve out their livings from it. While it may not be the most comfortable life, it's what they've always done, and some people do still want to be cowboys.

(originally published at CitySearch)

book review — Cruddy - Lynda Barry

"Ask a burning question, get a burning answer," and Roberta Rohbeson—the scar-armed, chip-toothed, 9 ½-fingered heroine of Lynda Barry’s grotesquely gorgeous debut novel—is nearly burned up from the inside by the story she’s waited so long to tell. At age 11, Roberta was stowed in the back seat of a car by her strident, self-absorbed mother, and forced to accompany "the father" (as she refers to him throughout the book, which is structured as a memoir) on a cross-country murder spree. Baptized into a new life as "Clyde," the idiot nephew of this madman, with stinking blood, endless cigarettes and swigs of Old Skull Popper, Roberta is scraped clean of any semblance of childhood.

Hell-bent on revenge against those whom he believes cheated him out of his rightful share of the Rohbeson’s Slaughter and Custom House fortune, the father sees Roberta as a partner in crime. She—burning sick from the father’s diet of coffee, cigarettes, aspirin, booze and stale vending machine food, and starving for any small scrap of love from him—is easily enlisted into this mission.

As the "Navy down to the last inch of his pecker" father trains her how to gut a man with a small knife and rewards her for her first kill with a pack of Lucky Strikes, Roberta is bled numb of horror. Her sense of beauty is so darkly bruised that, upon seeing a man dead for a week in a hot trailer, she notes, "You see his black crusted lips pulled away from shockingly white teeth...you see him shining out his special smile just for you."

But this inuring to gore, coupled with her adherence to the father’s dogma—always be prepared, never hesitate, be the unexpected—is ultimately Roberta's salvation from the twisted picaresque of her life. When the moment comes at the Lucky Chief Motel Massacre, she is able to do what is necessary.

Flash forward five years, and strange, broken-faced Roberta is living an aching life in a "crudded-out town in a cruddy state, country, world, solar system, universe." She finds herself feeling strangely melancholy on the fifth anniversary of the massacre, surprised at the emptiness she feels in the wake of the inattention, especially when she’d been rather anticipating relief.

But this is also the day that Roberta is sparked back into being. While hiding in the weeds during lunch at school one day ("My school is a violent place"), she meets the first of the beautiful misfit burnouts who become her salvation from the lonely numb of her life. They range from garish to agoraphobic to gently psychotic, each with a need, like Roberta, for intense sensation. Vicky Talluso, the Stick, the Turtle and the others share what they have: drugs, sex, promises of grand adventure. In return, she gives them the only thing she has—her untold story—somehow knowing that when that is used up, she’ll once again have to be prepared to do what is necessary.

Although Lynda Barry is best known for her alternately hilarious, dark and deeply touching "Ernie Pook’s Comeek," fans of that comic will have an instant familiarity with the language of "Cruddy." Barry’s phrasing is unique—the stilted, formal speech of teenagers trying to prove they aren’t tripping too hard to speak, the blissed-out and unself-conscious overdescriptions of wide-eyed kids, the stentorian dictates of grown-ups crashing down to harsh out any mellow one might be having.

"Cruddy" is an all too rare joy, in that it is equally and seamlessly successful in both story and language. Sliding in and out of the dual narratives, Barry never falters in her attention to the nuance of the five years separating the two voices of Roberta, creating a character who, while not always a completely reliable narrator, is unfailingly believable and sympathetic.

The illustrations sprinkled throughout the novel are perhaps the more striking break from Barry's previous work, marking a fairly startling departure from the grotesque playfullness of "Ernie Pook's Comeek" to an aesthetic more grounded in traditional landscape painting and portraiture. While perhaps a bit too heavy-handed and illustrative, they can perhaps be explained as Roberta’s rather than Barry’s. Suffused with gory beauty, tempered by a solid, compelling plot and stocked with dynamic, compelling characters, "Cruddy" is a triumph on nearly every level. We can only hope that Lynda Barry finds this medium worthy of her attention again.

(originally published at CitySearch)

book review — Yellow Jack - Josh Russell

In the oppressive, sweltering summers of the 1840s, the residents of New Orleans play unwilling hosts to a visitor known as Yellow Jack. "Mr. Jack" (or yellow fever, as it was subsequently identified) comes to town on his annual visits, borne on the throngs of mosquitoes, thriving in the dank heat of the thickly-settled city. While many residents are able to avoid meeting the unwelcome guest, thousands of those not fortunate enough to have the means or sense to flee the city for the season succumb to the ravages of the disease. It is in this climate of close and senseless death that Claude Marchand's artistic genius flowers, only to be choked out by his similarly festering madness. Born in Paris, 1820, to a mother lost in childbirth, and a father who falls victim to a stabbing attack 14 years later, Claude's life from the very beginning is steeped through with the knowledge of inevitable demise. During the week that it takes for him to die from the rusted-knife wound, Marchand's father gorges his son on his own new found dread of mortality.

"Death is no more than a line drawn through a man's name," he told me one day while we watched a gardener pepper a furrow with poppy seeds. His wound changed his views. There were blue flames when he closed his eyes and he was sure his pain would never end. Even full of laudanum he would promise me Hell was waiting for us, we all deserved it and it simmered below. I was still convinced there was nothing inside a man but a twist of guts.… Above me in his bed my father yelled "A mouthful of nettles!" as if he could hear my thoughts, and suddenly I shared his visions of fiery mazes, meals of thistles, streets paved with red-hot cobbles. Young Claude soon learns that he can subsume some of the horror in his newfound love for painting. Sublimating grief into the curve of an aubergine's skin, a pear, a bowl of fruit, he is at the same time sketching out his own fate as a creature composed entirely of a series of ultimately destructive passions. In a rage—after his master, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, had beaten him down in a barroom for leaking the secret of their miraculous new picture-making technique—Claude fills a specially made new coat with camera, silvered plates, iodine and Daguerre's cash, leaving the studio a savaged wreck. Laden with these new possessions, and a sense of self-righteous indignation, he sets out for the only place that could absorb his mania. On a night when the sky is fetid with smoke and the air thunders with the crash of Independence Day cannons, Claude arrives in New Orleans.

In this city of excess and tawdry, immediate pleasures, Claude drowns himself thoroughly in his passions. As he is further absorbed by his wildly successful picture-making, readily available intoxicants and the two women with whom he shared his bed—his future wife, the nymphet Vivian Marmu (aged 10 at their first meeting) and his octoroon mistress Millicent—his first-person narrative becomes increasingly blurred and delusional. This is somewhat mitigated by the inclusion of an occasionally successful conceit, a faux contemporary historical analysis of the seminal works of Claude Marchand, the first American daguerrian. It is enlightening to find that Marchand's hundreds of funeral portraits of yellow fever victims and images of the sullied, infested city were eventually instrumental in garnering government support for control of the disease, and that his increasing dementia is due to overexposure to the mercury used in the developing process. However, the inclusion of such objectivity may be even more welcome for the fact that, accompanied by notes from Millicent's diary, it provides a much needed respite from the claustrophobic haze of Claude's mad ramblings.

"Do you want to know what I have for you?" I asked, taunting them with the surprise. Three heads nodded, three mouths curled with nervous smiles. I opened my mouth and jerked out a tooth, then another, then a third. Three jaws dropped. "Hold out your hands," I demanded. Only Pinistri offered his palm. I dropped the teeth into it, then spat blood. "My flesh my blood—it's all I have to offer, kind sirs."

While the miasmic accounts of his own physical and mental decay provide an interesting parallel to the destruction that Yellow Jack was simultaneously wreaking on the city, the tragedy of Claude is not deeply felt in any sense other than historical. Less a character than a collection of unfounded furies and selfish lusts, and with his ultimate fate matter-of-factly laid out within the first three pages of the book, there is neither surprise nor chagrin when Claude meets his end at age 25. Toothless and mad, he realizes that there can be no greater hell than the one he already knows, and literally drowns himself in the city where he has figuratively been doing so all along. "We are a jumble of wants," Claude concludes, precipitously close to the edge of the madness that finally sears his very being. He is a man lost to the fever of his desires.

(originally published at CitySearch)

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