Lazy Eyes by James Nulick

Book: Lazy Eyes

Author: James Nulick

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction, experimental fiction, transgressive fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it straddles very fine lines that separate literary fiction from experimental fiction from transgressive fiction from outright strangeness.

Availability: Published in 2022 by ExPat Press, you can get a copy here.

Disclaimers: You will find my name in the “thanks” section in this collection, and I have edited works for James in the past. I also like James and consider him a friend and the readers of this discussion may have to decide for themselves if I like James so much because his writing is amazing or if I am fondly disposed toward his work because he’s so likeable. Safest bet is that it is probably both but as usual I will make my case.

Comments: James Nulick is one of the most under-rated writers working. There are a handful of names I frequently say this about, including Ann Sterzinger and Hank Kirton, and it never fails to baffle me that each one of them isn’t far better known. Each book James writes should be the book that makes his name, so to speak, and this short story collection is no different.

I think one of the reasons that James has yet to achieve the renown he deserves is because it is very hard to pin down his style. Part autobiographic, part utter fiction, his work combines a direct, often visceral confessional tone that he mixes with magical realism. His unflinching look at the worst people can do is balanced with his keen insight into why bad people are unexpectedly good, and why good people so often fail morally. He marries that unyielding yet sympathetic gaze with otherworldly examinations of life and death that are so fantastic that they are akin to fairy tales or alternative takes on religion. His work is complex yet accessible, dark and hopeful, discrete and irreal, and in a literary world where people need writers and their works summed up in a couple of sentences, it can be hard for the genuinely innovative and interesting to reach the audience their talent is due.

Lazy Eyes seems to me to be a continuation of James’s 2021 novel, The Moon Down to Earth. Moon is a remarkable work in which James took the stories of three very unlikely people – an Hispanic super-morbidly obese, bed-bound woman, a white elderly widower, and a young mixed race aspiring musician – and showed the cosmic threads that wove them into a common human tapestry. The invisible strings that connect all the characters can be small things, like common cultural touchstones, to larger issues of coping with loss and abuse. James honors their individual natures while also showing an almost Jungian commonality that removes barriers of sex, gender, race, and age from the inner lives of extremely different people.

In Lazy Eyes, James picks up the central theme of unlikely connections and takes it a step further. No longer bound to the physical, human-dominated world, James created a universe wherein the line between animal and human experience is erased, one where death isn’t the end of personal growth and achievement, and one in which we create our own haunted lives. Cats dream of ascendance, the dead don’t die, and mannequins become sons in James’s strange but instinctively familiar world. Graphic and emotional, visceral and ethereal, relentless and sympathetic, the way James writes is so sui generis that it can only be called Nulickian.

It’s somewhat difficult to discuss these stories the way I prefer. I don’t want to spoil them, of course. There’s also a challenge that comes when one is presented with a series of stories that handle concepts of ceaseless transformation. It’s altogether more difficult when those stories need to be read together in order to understand James’ conceptual world-building. And then you need to bear in mind that I guarantee you there will be one or two elements from these stories that will haunt you or will intrigue you as you try to understand the numerology (and possibly angelology as I believe there are hierarchies among the spirits in these stories) that James salts throughout. I personally found myself ferreting out the meanings behind the numbers nine and fifty-seven, and want to talk about it in depth but am exercising rare restraint. I also never want to see a stick of beef jerky ever again. If you read this collection – and I think you should – please let me know the plot points, meaningful details or strange cosmic filaments that remained with you long after reading.

Since I am trying very hard not to spoil these stories, I am going to limit myself to the pieces that spoke to me the most. There isn’t a clunker among the ten stories in this collection, covering varied topics like alien (species) invasion, dark and fatal magic, or the difficulties of coming of age when one is different or anxious to be different. The stories that stuck with me the most were those that demonstrated the most world-building, verging almost into slipstream as James takes the mundane and makes it fantastic while never leaving behind the very specific, emotional literary effort that defines his style.

My favorite story in the collection is “Doe,” a heartbreaking look at how the dead never really go away, not even when they are nameless, not even when an argument can be made that they never really lived. Having no name and being literally dead on arrival, however, do not mean that the dead don’t stop growing after death. There is a balance in life and death, in body and soul, summed up in the best line in the story:

God is, if anything, symmetrical.

What is remarkable in this particular story is how grounded in reality it is – sadly it is very much a story that can be said to be ripped from the headlines over and over again – while also dabbling in ideas of what it means to be haunted, of why the dead may be both unwilling and unable to lie down. “Doe” makes no distinction between crushing guilt and spiritual revenge, and in fact I wonder if the point of this piece was to give a new insight into human conscience and what is behind our inability to shed the negative emotions we carry after we’ve done terrible things. We may create our own psychological prisons but we may not be the jailer who holds the key to freedom. This story also challenged my sense of what I supposed was my own moral stance regarding life and death, forcing me to consider the idea that simply not being does not mean not existing and wondering who, if anyone, has the right to make decisions regarding life and death when conscious existence may continue forever. This story reminded me a lot of Stewart O’Nan’s The Night Country, a book about dying young and how those left behind can be haunted in vastly different ways.

“The Black Doberman” would be hard for me to discuss even if I were not resolute regarding spoilers in this discussion. Because it disturbed me, I reread it a few times to try and define the uneasiness I felt. This is the story from which the title is derived, as the titular Doberman is named Lazy Eyes. This story is a gut punching combination of Bret Easton Ellis-style empty materialism, post-feminist yearning for traditional domestic titles, and a subtle sort of Freaky Friday role-switching as a character eliminates a rival in her romantic relationship only to take on the moral and social worth of her defeated foe. Best line in the story:

My entire life has been an unattended funeral.

The female character in this story is despicable while also being very pathetic, which then made her even more despicable because the god in my own symmetrical heart wants those who feel pain to be kind, strong, and brave. There is an intelligence that comes from personal misery that allows people to see how others feel the same way, yet this character refused to see the link between herself and that which she hated. There was a similar disconnect at play in “Doe” and it feels very much as if the unattended funeral is the end result of not seeing the tendrils of connection. Being deliberately cut off from the ebb and flow of life and how it affects conscious experience is itself a lonely death in the world James created.

“Dark Web” surprised me with how much more I took away from it after a second read. I suspect most of the stories in this collection will offer up more and more with additional reads. Anil and Ridhi are a couple working at home during the Covid shutdowns that closed many offices. Each stake their claim in the house – Anil becomes a chronic masturbator in the basement as he toggles back and forth between Pornhub and work, and Ridhi works in the kitchen in between her forays onto Reddit. James took a basic story, that of the couple who grows apart when forced to be very close, and subtly embroidered the theme of connection into it. When something genuinely strange happens that disrupts the tiresome routine that Anil is frantically trying to break free from in unseemly ways (like masturbating in public near other joggers while walking his dog), the loss of routine and real intimacy ensures that Anil finds himself just as haunted as those who suffered genuine deaths in this collection.

Beyond that, James draws attention to certain bestial elements of Anil’s viewpoint that closely mirror other, very different minds in this collection. Specifically, he imagines his wife’s ass and thighs, but refers to them, tellingly, as “hind quarters.” Anil is not diminishing his wife, nor is he a closet zoophile. Rather, James is showing the ways that the bestial and the humane can become intertwined because, in the magical world in Lazy Eyes, the animals think as humans do, and their thoughts, betrayals, and desires are very similar to those of humans. Anil is protective of his dog, lamenting planting trees that could poison her so he keeps her safe, creating a close connection with his dog. Not so much with his wife and when it may be too late, he merges the protective love he has for his dog with the protective love he wished he had had for his wife.

This, by the way, is an excellent example of what happens when you dig around in these stories a few times. I can’t think of a book with similar characterization and handling of plot wherein subtle phrases and descriptions reveal a yarn-like skein of connection. It’s genius.

“Strange Captive” broke my heart. It ended on a very hopeful note, but it’s still a rough story. The dark revelation of this story is that you read it in one of two ways, depending on that which horrifies you the most. This isn’t a wishy-washy piece, speaking of dark things without the courage to describe them accurately from the mind of the captive, but rather another example of the commonality between experiences that is the backbone of this collection. The hell of it is, even though the events in the story are specific and defined, I still ended the piece wondering what it was I had really read. The final paragraph and exacting details do not equivocate but my own personal horrors made it less clear.

“The Beautiful Sister” is a surprisingly unpleasant look at a teen girl who strikes out at her older sister in an absolutely calculating way. She’s seeking redress for years of what she considers abuse and dismissal and I was surprised at how much her anger shocked me. Was the revenge she sought so terrible if an adult and her boyfriend did not shrink away from helping her? This is a connection I may not understand, having been raised an only child. Perhaps the tension between siblings can result in such reactions. We have plenty of examples of it, with this story standing as a sort of witchy Cain and Abel update, but my experiences lack that specific tendril attachment. With that in mind, it might be interesting to read this book to see what you don’t connect with as much as what you do.

I won’t mention too much about “Spiders” because I genuinely cannot think of a way to discuss the story without completely spoiling it, but I want to mention that I read this story not long after reading articles about how it is that octopuses give human beings the best way to examine alien minds that we can find while confined to this planet. I had also recently seen the 2015 film Evolution, a minimalist horror story demonstrating the way humans could one day find themselves exploited for the benefit of a completely different, though somewhat visibly familiar species. Both media examples colored how I reacted to this story.

In fact, it was interesting how many of these stories, very unique in world-building and theory-creation, I read on the heels of or alongside media that traveled similar paths. The 2021 film Lamb comes to mind, as well as lower-rent movies on Shudder about angry teen girls who avail themselves of darker magic that seems a bridge too far considering the slights that caused them to lash out. I find coincidences like that meaningful though I seldom can pin down the meaning. Interesting nonetheless.

It’s a very rare short story collection when more than half of the stories are each worth the price of admission, as I like to put it. This collection is definitely worth reading and I highly recommend it.

NVSQVAM (nowhere) by Ann Sterzinger

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book:  NVSQVAM (nowhere)

Author:  Ann Sterzinger

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Oh, this book…

Availability:  Published by Nine Banded Books in 2011, you can get a copy here:

Amazon currently has this book on sale for Kindle for $2.99.  That makes it almost impossible not to take a look.

Comments: There are two reasons to read this book.  The first reason is because Sterzinger nails a specific social dissatisfaction I tend to associate with the sorts of men who really love Jonathan Franzen, a sort of Lester Burnham-esque unhappiness that can only be cured by having sex with a much-younger woman and sneering at the daily grind and everyday domesticity.  She distills this generational malaise through a single character and refuses to show us the way out, because, most of the time there isn’t one.  The other reason to read it is because it is so very funny.  Seriously, Sterzinger has the sort of intelligent, acerbic wit that I imagined I had back when I was a drunk.

I think this is a book that will read differently to every person who picks it up.  Women of a certain age (hi!) will want to take the protagonist and swat him with a newspaper until he stops pissing and moaning about his life and either accepts it or changes it in a meaningful way, and I wanted to swat him all the more because Lester (yep, Lester) Reichartsen is himself a man of a certain age.  He embodies the Gen-X confusion-burnout that I see plaguing so many of my age-peers, coupled with a longing for an edgy past because their passivity and entitlement meant they ended up in a life they really never wanted but didn’t have the balls to reject along the way.

In the beginning, Lester is just one of those people.  You know, the ones to whom everything happens and they actually do very little.  They feel very put-upon.  Lester is more or less living a life he hates that he feels happened to him due to no actions or faults of his own.  He hates everyone around him – especially his only child and the religious mid-westerners who surround his college town – and the only things he really accomplishes, aside from a prolonged, drunken nervous breakdown, are taking long walks and engaging in an affair.

Though I find Lester largely irritating and unlikeable, he is not unique in his passive, seething uselessness.  Jesus, so many young people born to baby boomer parents ended up like this.  Almost all of us were latch-key kids, the post-Reagan economic state seemed hopeless, and we had Pearl Jam running across the stage in baggy shorts making millions of dollars moaning about their mothers, which was sort of understandable because so many of us were raised in divorced, single-parent, female-headed households. Some young men raised in such an environment felt buffeted by fate, as if everything they wanted would never happen and they entered a post-collegiate life with no idea what to do next.  Get married?  Yeah, that worked so well for our parents.  Get a good job?  But aren’t we supposed to find our bliss and honor our talents?  Didn’t our parents raise us to honor our deep individuality (while giving us little assistance in determining how to put that individuality to use)?  Get a factory job?  None are left.  The world changed so much in such a short period of time that all the lessons many Gen-xers were taught were obsolete the day after they became adults.

It’s tempting to write Lester off as a self-involved crap-fest of a human being, but even as I wanted to grab his nose between my index and middle finger and twist it violently, I felt a certain level of empathy for him.  He almost seems like an embodiment of the sentiment expressed in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club – we were all told we were going to be rock stars and when that didn’t happen it pissed off large segments of this generation. So many of us feel like we have failed our families, ourselves and especially our past, idealistic selves.  What do we do about that rage and real failure? To avoid that sense of failure, wounded egos become passive, taking paths of least resistance, so they can say that they aren’t responsible for anything in their lives – that’s how we end up with Lesters.  Lester Reichartsen is a self-absorbed, largely useless asshole but he’s our asshole, my generation’s asshole.  You can’t hobble large segments of a generation and then hold them completely responsible for limping. 

The Ends of Our Tethers by Alasdair Gray

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book:  The Ends of Our Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories

Author:  Alasdair Gray

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  Because it got under my skin.  That in and of itself may not indicate oddness as normal books get under my skin from time to time but the magnificent story in the collection about a skin disease and the emotional and aesthetic satisfaction people get from peeling off scabs and bits of skin showed me this was no normal book.

Availability: Published by Cannongate Books in 2003, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  About a year ago, a reader on this site sent me an e-mail praising me, telling me I reminded him of Elizabeth Young.  I was unfamiliar with her and found an article about her on Dennis Cooper’s blog.  Though I can see some superficial similarities – we both read difficult and transgressive writers – it’s hard to say there is really much I have in common with the late Ms Young.  She seemed more learned and certainly more serious than me, and I can’t see her having the patience for the conspiracy theory that I so often find enthralling.  But even though my fan clearly sees me in a different light than I see myself, the Google search did me some good.  It reminded me I needed to read and discuss Dennis Cooper over here and am sort of surprised I have not already.  It also led me to Alasdair Gray.

You see, while our approaches to The Word are different, Young and I have very similar tastes in fiction.  Almost every woman I know wants to smack me in the face for loving A.M Homes’ The End of Alice, a book Young championed.  Reading that she loved Nelson Algren sent a strange shiver up my spine – like Burroughs, I want to read him sober but I am almost afraid to do it, and, again, I can count on one hand the number of people I know who even know of him.   The list of the writers Young championed was a list I recognized as part of my reading habits, with one sole exception: Alasdair Gray.  I once had a copy of Gray’s Poor Things but I never read it and I could not find it after reading Cooper’s article about Young. So I ordered a couple of his books.

It was book love.  In the middle of the first story in this collection, I fell into book love.  I cannot believe I went this long without reading Alasdair Gray.  I almost hate myself for it.

Some of the stories are sketches, like the first in the collection, the story of a man who encounters some tough youths and bests them as they try to manipulate him.  But some are longer-form, traditional stories.  Because I could very easily crank out 10,000 words about this 181 page collection, I will limit myself to my two favorite stories.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Hunger

Author: Knut Hamsun

Type of Book: Literary fiction

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, it’s a book without a plot with an utterly unhinged protagonist. Possibly one of the most upsetting books I have ever read.

Availability: This book was originally published in 1890. My edition is from Farrar, Strauss, Giraux in 2008. You can get a copy here:

(If you have a Kindle, dig around because I saw a Kindle version going for free, though that may be because I have a Prime Membership on Amazon)

Comments: I’ve been putting off discussing this book because I don’t know where to start. Hunger really is a book without a plot – in this novel, the same thing happens every day with mild variations on action. There is no character arc because the protagonist is as vainglorious, horribly depressed, and lunatic at the beginning as he is at the end.  This book frustrated me beyond belief and yet I read it through twice because I just had to do it. And as contradictory as it sounds, I hated this book the first read and loved it the second. This is all the more contradictory because even though I loved it the second time, I never want to read this book again.

This book is the literary equivalent of running your soul over a cheese grater. Over and over again. It’s hard to discuss such a book with any skill, though others have. Initially, I thought Paul Auster’s take on this book, printed in the copy I read, was wrong, but later I realized he was correct – he just interrogated the text from a different perspective. He looked at the book from an intellectual perspective and I looked at it from the perspective of someone who has gone insane and felt something akin to pain reading such lunacy.

So I am faced with a problem: how does one discuss a narrator whose highs and lows make Raskolnikov’s public behavior seem normal? How can I discuss a book wherein nothing really changes and there is virtually no character arc? I don’t know. I think all I can do is discuss the parts of this book that resonated the most with me, and even this is going to be sticky because even as I divide the book into specific elements I want to discuss, there will be significant overlap between these elements. For example, as I discuss how the protagonist cannot act in his own self-interests, lunacy caused by starvation also comes into play. In fact, it is tempting to just write the words, “Starvation in a land of plenty will make you insane” over and over until I hit a decent word count. Just bear that in mind – there is a lot of overlap when discussing the narrator’s mind and actions.

Before I begin, I need to mention that I read the edition translated by Robert Bly, widely considered to be the crappiest translation because he evidently “corrected” verb usage to eliminate mixed tenses. Mixed tenses, according to scholars of the text, were to show the disorganization of the protagonist’s mind. So my edition is actually a bit saner than the actual text. Though I sort of wish I had read a more faithful translation of the text, I suspect it is a good thing I read the less crazy version. As it was, the narrator’s mind was an utter vexation.

Hunger‘s narrator is trying to write in a very Dostoyevskian manner. He may be an excellent writer but his topics, “Crimes of the Future” or “Freedom of the Will” lean toward him being a self-impressed hack. His grand ideas are constrained by his grinding poverty and his mental disorganization.  The novel is divided into four parts and begins with him leaving a boarding house (though he could have stayed had he just approached the problem with logic and patience) and living rough. The second part of the novel concerns his attempts to live in a borrowed shack as he tries to write. In the third part, he meets a woman who slowly realizes he is not what she thought he was and the romance is dashed. The fourth section of the novel takes place mostly in a very low boarding house where the narrator, terrified of the cold and of living rough again, hangs onto a roof over his head in a manner so servile and cringing it almost killed me to read it. He finally goes to enlist as a crew member on a ship, which some take as him finally moving on from his despair, but I read as suicide, an interpretation I will, of course, explain. Until then, I will just divide this discussion up into relevant chunks and hope that at the end I have given the reader a good idea of the protagonist and the struggles he faces as he starves nearly to death in a world that often notices him too well or does not notice him at all.

Him Her Him Again The End of Him by Patricia Marx

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Him Her Him Again The End of Him

Author: Patricia Marx

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: The title sucked me in. Also the dust jacket popped. Never underestimate the appeal of an orange dust jacket.

Availability: Published by Scribner in 2007, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Can you love unreservedly a book that enthralls you but falls apart in the final pages? I think you can. You can love it the same way you love your cat who continually butt drags on the beige carpet. The cat is loving, adorable, a delight in every way except that terrible surprise waiting for you when you walk downstairs. It irritates you fiercely when it happens but mostly you recall all the times the beast has made you happy. That’s the approach I am taking with this book: the great fun of the book overwhelmed the unhappy surprise at the end.

Marx’s clever yet sympathetic prose coupled with an appreciation for the absurd gives us a heroine we can both root for and wish we could throttle. Her depiction of the villain in this piece may seem heavy-handed but at the same time portrays perfectly the bafflement others must feel observing any relationships women have with such men. I suspect this book will speak to mostly women of a certain age who have made shockingly dumb decisions in love, but anyone with a love of characters full of self-deprecating humor and wit will find much to love in this book.

We begin with the heroine meeting the dreadful Eugene Obello at Cambridge. An American, the heroine is working on a thesis that is never wholly finished and becomes rapt with Eugene very quickly.

“Let N represent the set of natural numbers,” Eugene said.

“If it’s up to me,” I said, “N can be anything it wants.”

She loses her virginity to him, despite the fact that anyone, from her friends to the reader, can tell that Eugene is a tool of the highest order.

I saw Eugene smile faintly, then put on a serious face. “Shall we, my precious abecedarian… proceed?” Eugene said and just as solemnly, I nodded. Talk about proceeding, my suitor had me in the bed before I knew which end was up. But then the proceeding stopped so that he could amorously fold each item of his clothes, taking special care with the trouser creases, and stack one piece on top of the other on the bedside chair, ending with his socks. He laid his watch on one sock, his eyeglasses on the other. I tried to ignore this preliminary activity, in the same way you’re not supposed to see what’s going on backstage before the show.

Yeah, don’t sleep with a man who uses the word abecedarian in reference to your sexual inexperience. I mean, you can almost deal with that level of arrogance in word selection but if he follows this by folding his clothes in an exacting manner, don’t sleep with him. At times it was hard not to shout at the pages, much in the same way I would shout at characters in horror movies when I was in junior high, hollering, “Run! Run away and hide!”

After Eugene tells the heroine, whose name we never learn, that he has been dating a new woman whom he plans to marry and that he is breaking up with her, she decides to invite Eugene and Margaret to her place and she will make them all dinner. Her friends chime in with their opinions, varying from recipe recommendations to condemning Eugene for failing to bring the heroine a gift back from a trip. However, one friend gets it right:

Libby: “You know how everyone is always saying go with your heart, trust your instinct, have the courage of your convictions? My advice is not to listen to those people.”

And of course, because he is a terrible man, Eugene does bring Margaret to dinner at the heroine’s place. Of course, our heroine misinterpreted his motives because her feckless sense of humor is only trumped by her willingness to be deluded.

When one of the heroine’s friends, Obax, finally dumps her cad of a boyfriend after finding out he got another woman pregnant, though even that knowledge was not enough to spur her to immediate action, the heroine muses on the situation with a clarity that can only come at the end of acting as another’s fool:

Why she took action at that point, which wasn’t even the lowest point, I cannot tell you. For that matter, why does anyone wake up one morning and finally clean out the crawlspace or shoot the boss or quit the tuba or propose marriage or throw in the towel or run for alderman or make any other long-intended change? Of course, if philosophers can’t figure out grains of sand, how was I, a mere graduate student, challenged even by the quest for data, supposed to answer for anything?

And while I think everyone can agree with this assessment of the confusing nature of the human condition, it still doesn’t stop the reader from wanting to poke the protagonist in the bottom and have her act in her own best interests. But if she didn’t, we wouldn’t have this book to remind us of all the dumb times we did not act in our best interests, of how we were drawn to the Eugene Obellos in our own lives, captivated by bad energy that others could sense but we blithely overlooked in a Quixotic quest that only time allowed us to see for the godless endeavor it was.

The pitiful behavior continues apace and the narrator does not cut herself any slack. The behavior that draws her to Eugene is in no way made more attractive. After Eugene marries, he calls for the protagonist:

“My singular dodo bird,” Eugene had written on a note-card. “Please do not absquatulate on me. With ardent devotion from your once-again Cantabridgian.” I would have preferred “devoted ardor,” but that’s being greedy. And it did not stop me from getting on a train that was heading to Eugene lickety-split.

Eugene spends the afternoon bragging about an expose he is writing that will devastate Elie Wiesel and dropping hints his wife is pregnant. He also, at the end of the meeting, makes it clear he called our heroine simply to return to her some items she had left behind at his place. When the protagonist runs into an old friend named Oliver at the train station as she returns home, she remembers how he referred to Eugene as her “heinous hypnotist.” Oliver had seen her with Eugene and when he sees her at the station, he wants to ride with her and talk to her but instead of being at least kind, she insults his clothing. Oliver kindly kisses her on the cheek and retreats a wounded exit. It is here that the torment of reading sort of ends, and the reader can watch as the narrator consigns her fate and her youth to the pursuit of a pedantic philandering asshole. She’s not kind and on a very basic level, perhaps she deserves what comes to her, even as she is witty and pitiful in her grovelling.

She returns to New York, begins working for a television show, but when Eugene moves to New York and calls her, she goes to see him and they begin an affair. Her friends are as appalled as I was:

Lisa: “Can I be honest? Something’s wrong with you.”
Deb: “If you’re happy, I’m happy. You shouldn’t be happy, though.”
Meg: “I’ve heard worse, but not much worse.”
Joan: “I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but it’s clear that Eugene is gay.”
Pearson: “The winner in this story is Margaret. She got a night off from him.”
Buffy: “If I were a better person, this story would turn me into a feminist.”
Phoebe: “Remind me again why you like him? Is it because he’s using you or because he lies to you repeatedly?”

No matter how pathetic, slightly immoral or irrational our behavior is, many of us really want honest feedback from friends, which we then dismiss as we pursue our terrible ends. Our protagonist is no different because specific feedback doesn’t cause her to change course in any manner. One marginally acceptable sex session with Eugene and she’s back in full pursuit again, her dignity and his wife and child be damned.

Later, she meets up again with her friend Obax and their conversation is why, even when I found the protagonist so tiresome that I kept reading. It’s very easy to look at others and never see ourselves, and when we finally see ourselves, we realize how stupid and exhausting we were, and how easy it is to justify our actions.

“I can’t believe you still know him,” Obax said. “He’s a cad and a bore and a sneak and a fake and a narcissist and a braggart and I don’t like his teeth, either.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I said, “but that’s just one side of him.”

“What about the married thing?” Obax said. “Don’t you feel a little bad for Margaret?”

“What does she have to do with it?” I said, and I meant it. I had met Eugene a long time before Margaret had. “Besides,” I said, “he seems to really like me this time. And he’s so smart. Being with him is getting an A.”

Unless you were born exceptionally self aware and with a sense of morality that trumped wanting what you want and damn the consequences, you’ve been in this position and seeing it presented without an ounce of pity and yet with no small amount of sarcasm will make you either hate or love this book. I myself like seeing glimpses of who I used to be before I hit my 30s and understood the idea that the bad things we do come back to us. (Oh, by the way, I’m still an idiot these days. But were I single, I am confident I would not sleep with anyone else’s husband. As you get older, your stupidity turns from the carnal to the more mundane, it has been my experience.)

And as the narrator spins her wheels, spending her life in thrall to an unethical psychiatrist who is everything Obax says he is and more, she manages to waste even more time when she is away from him.

I was working as an assistant to a celebrity whose name I had better not divulge if that’s okay with you, but I can tell you she’s fat and she’s a lesbian and that that is not as narrow a field as you might think. My job was to buy up supplies of Dr. Nougat candy bars once a week from various stores; eat a bar from each batch; then write up reports about the taste, freshness, crispness, discoloration, if any, and whether the bars were chipped or nicked. My boss wanted only the best. It wasn’t a hard job–a limo took me to each place. But you know how Karl Mark said labor can be alienating? I couldn’t agree with him more.

She’d had a good job working for a terrible television program, a job most of us would have killed for but as a woman who got an A in life because she was sleeping with Eugene, it is no surprise she slunk down to such a place wherein she did such a trivial job and became a little bitter.

And though no one could read what I have written so far about this book without realizing the situation between the narrator and Eugene could not end well, I still don’t want to ruin the ending, even though I hate the ending so very, very much. I will reveal that the narrator found out she was not the only woman Eugene was sleeping with and when she finally stands up and realizes what a cretin he is, it is both funny and sobering. She is confronting him in his office, trying to look like she is not hurt, and he takes a phone call as she struggles to remain composed.

Eugene, meanwhile, was on the telephone. “À bientôt, my only one,” I heard him say. I believe I may have glowered.

If the world can be divided into people who would have signed the Munich Agreement versus those who would have stood firm against Hitler–and who says it can’t–I would definitely have been in the former camp, giving away the Sudetenland with a smile and a cookie. I might even have offered the Fuhrer a signing bonus, for example the mineral rights to South Dakota. As you know, I am not big on making trouble. But that morning, in Eugene’s office, I had not been myself (which in my case, is not generally but sometimes a very good thing not to be). And that is why, after Eugene said à bientôt, I stood up and said, “I think it is time to terminate.”

And you hope that when this happens, it will indeed be over but we do indeed know the protagonist and of course it is not over. It will not be over until the object of her obsession is removed from the picture entirely and the strange and comedic misery continues on for some more pages. But going back to an earlier passage wherein the heroine mused on what it was that made people act, a simple French phrase used often in Britain to give a casual goodbye seems like an unlikely straw to break the camel’s back. But trivial things can often push us over the edge.

The heroine of this story, and make no mistake, as daft and lacking self-awareness as she was, she was a heroine, lays out so clearly what this sort of pointless obsession feels like, and how it trumps honesty, common sense, self-respect, familial relationships, wise career choices, or even the capacity to make the most of an overseas education. But had the book simply been a recount that told me that, it would have been unreadable. Marx adroitly mixes intolerable truths into amusing situations, clever characterization and witty dialogue. I loved this book for its capacity to remind me how being smart was never enough to prevent me from being an idiot and how the desire to be the one and only, even to a despicable man, can become all that matters.

This book is also so very funny that even if you are not a woman who understands bad mistakes and the accumulation of consequences, you can still enjoy the heroine and her friends. I find this to be a very good, intensely readable, clever book, despite how disappointing the ending was.

PS: And as a final complaint, I want to mention this line:

The one full night I did spend with him gave me insight into what it would be like to share a bed with the Gestapo.

Writers of the world, I beseech you, please stop using the Nazis in casual comparisons. Eugene was a dreadful man but I wager being in bed with him was nothing like being interrogated by the Gestapo. I’m decidedly not a stickler for politically correct language or ideas but the older I get the more I find casual hyperbole that relates to Nazis and the Holocaust to be tiresome. How come no one talks about being in bed with the Stasi? How come people don’t make humorous allusions between casual violence and the Khmer Rouge or the Armenian genocide? Maybe because it’s terribly insensitive? Maybe because the Western imagination is so impoverished that we can only remember the German Holocaust and Nazis when it comes to funny references to some of the worst social oppression ever being akin to dating a douchebag? Whatever the reason, I will rejoice when this habit stops entirely.

The passage about dividing the world into two camps of people – those who would have appeased Hitler and those who would not – doesn’t register as horrible as it does not bring into play the torture and murder of millions of people in order to make a comedic point. It’s subtle, but if you are comparing a restless sleeper to being in bed with the Gestapo, it is a far different thing than saying you are so weak you might have been the sort to appease Hitler. One implies a questioner is a torturer on scale with some of the worst torturers in history, and the other implies in the face of moral decisions one is often lacking. I hope I am making the difference clear.

Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Downtown Owl

Author: Chuck Klosterman

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I was mentally tired from reading so much bizarro for my other site and needed a break. I had purchased this book when I saw it in a Borders sale bin and grabbed it impulsively. It sat in a to-be-read stack and I read it only when the outrageousness of my odder books left me bleary, searching for something more prosaic.

Availability: Published by Scribner in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments: As I said above, I bought this book on impulse because it was on sale and read it because I was overwhelmed after reading a string of bizarro titles. There was no more thought in purchasing it and no more in reading it. Reading this book filled me with a sense of intense dread, a sad realization that I am doomed. Despite my self-admitted bibliophilic tendencies, despite my willingness to buy a book I know nothing about and read it, despite the fact that I am blessed with a relatively demand-free schedule and can read several hours a day, I will one day die without having discovered some amazing authors.

I haven’t recorded the final tally of what I have read for 2010 but it’s around 100 books. 100 books in a year. I admit I now read pretty slowly because of my review sites so maybe I can read more but let’s assume I can’t. Let’s assume two books a week is more or less my expected tally every year. I have maybe 30 years left if I am lucky. That’s 3,000 books before I die and that’s nothing. That’s not even the fiction section at my local Barnes & Noble. How many books like this one will I not read, books I may overlook or not buy on impulse? How can life be this cruel, this ridiculous, allowing so much talent and so little time to enjoy all of it?

Yes, this book was amazing, a revelation, a book so good it forced me to look at my own mortality and wonder if I can find a way to read more and absorb more because if I am only just now reading my first Chuck Klosterman book, what else awaits me? What other gems have I not discovered? What else will I miss before the end inevitably comes? Quite a bit, evidently.

This book is indeed a revelation because I can’t remember the last time I read a book and realized that the author not only got everything right, but also cooked up a novel so smoothly blended that at the end, it doesn’t really register that you have read a slice of small town Americana told with deft humor and clear love for the characters and town, a gentle character-driven yet plot heavy book and a modern naturalist novel with an environment cruelly and randomly shaping the lives of people whose wills should have been enough to sustain them in the end but cannot stand in the face of stronger, impersonal forces that act against them. Yes, I may be wrong as hell on this, but I really do see strong naturalist elements at work in a novel that is also steeped in sentimentality. And this is a very good reason to love this novel because to have pulled this off speaks of a talent that I could kick myself for almost missing.

Set in Owl, North Dakota in 1983-1984, this book discusses all the people in the little town by telling the stories of Julia, a recent college grad who teaches at Owl’s high school, Mitch, a high school football player who loathes pop music, and Horace, an elderly widower whose wife died from fatal familial insomnia and whose life revolves around getting coffee with his friends. While this novel shows Klosterman has a clear affection for Owl and the sorts of people who live there, he doesn’t slip into the role of a fawning admirer of bucolic small towns and the “quirky” people who live there. The pedophilic coach and literature teacher. The anti-government weirdo who lost his mind when his dog got shot. The bartender everyone thinks is too fond of his dog. Cubby Candy and Grendel, two outsiders whom all the teen boys want to fight each other and speculate endlessly about which loser would win in the brawl. The drunks, the cheaters, sadnesses, secrets. We all know everyone in small towns knows everyone else’s business but Klosterman shows the reader the collective mind of Owl.

The notion that there is far more to small towns than meets the eye is nothing new. That they are filled with quirky people, hard-working people, slackers, racists, drunks and high school football stars still basking in their glory days is also nothing new. But Klosterman’s synthesis of all that is obvious about small towns, combined with his gifts for characterization, his finely turned phrases, his insight and ability to capture so accurately a period in time, make the obvious seem utterly worth reading and the mundane new via his clever, precise presentation.

Because this novel is really the look at an entire town mainly via the stories of Julia, Horace and Mitch, it is almost impossible to discuss the plot because all those tiny plot lines and stories culminate in one horrific blizzard, a meteorological anomaly that hits the town and changes everything forever in the last ten pages of the book. It’s almost a punch in the gut, how quietly and determinedly without sentiment this novel ends, how neatly this novel refuses to let the reader believe in a world where death is just or even makes sense. This is when I realized that I had read a book that hinted at a naturalist philosophy. All these characters were shaped by their environment, that is almost too obvious to state, but there is no way that this book could have ended as it did unless Klosterman was detached from the story, letting events happen as they would and crushing the idea that free will plays much into how the lives of people end. The individual in this novel is presented as important and the book revolves around the various interesting natures of the people in Owl, but at the same time, the individual is powerless in the face of certain forces. The will to survive, personal strength or even intelligence means little at the end of it all. This is a book that despite the fun, the wonderful prose, the richness of characters, ultimately shows that life is harsh and the blunt and abrupt end of the novel were naturalistic to me. Of course, this is not a true naturalist novel – but the elements are there.

The real reason to read this book is because Klosterman is a fine writer. Let me present you with three passages about Julia, Mitch, and Horace. Julia, a recent college graduate who is a high school teacher, is befriended by a fellow teacher who is a bit of a barfly and the shy Julia finds herself the belle of the ball for the first time in her life, and she is often a belle with a terrible hangover as she descends into heavy drinking because that’s where all the men are – bellied up at the bar and, in Julia’s mind, clamoring for her drunken attentions. She eventually sobers up a bit and looks like she might be heading toward a real relationship. But before that happens, Klosterman treats us to a soused Julia, a Julia who spends a lot of time sprawled in bar booths and in the backs of cars, having the sorts of conversations immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time sprawled in bar booths and drunkenly declaring themselves in the backs of cars.

“I want to smooch Vance Druid,” Julia said. “I’m so serious. I want to walk to his house, knock on the door, and just smooch away. I want to enforce the Smoochie Rule. I’m serious. Nobody believes me but I want to smooch him hardcore.”

Julia said this from the backseat of Ted’s car. Ted was behind the wheel and Naomi was in the passenger seat. They had been drinking for seven hours. Ted was trying to drive off his buzz.

“You don’t wanna kiss that guy,” Naomi said in response. “That guy . . . you don’t need that guy. You can do better than that. He’s just a small-town drunk who needs new pants. You deserve a real man. And what the fuck’s the Smoochie Rule?”

“The Smoochie Rule is in effect!”

“You’re a crazy woman, you crazy woman.”

“Don’t tell me who isn’t crazy,” said Julia. “I’ll tell you who the crazy woman isn’t.”

Ted turned onto a gravel road. A fox ran across the path of his Chevy Cavalier, but no one inside the car noticed.

“Kissing is a problem,” slurred Ted. “Smooching, kissing, human relations, whatever you want to call it. It’s complex.”

“What are you talking about?” said Naomi. “You don’t know how to kiss people? Is that why you never kiss me? Because you don’t know how to kiss people? It’s not like driving a speedboat. It’s easy. A child could do it.”

“No, no. Shut your mouth, woman.” Ted drove with his knees while lighting a Camel with the car’s cigarette lighter. He shook the still-glowing lighter and threw it out the window. It was that kind of night. “That’s not what I mean. You don’t even know what I’m talking about. You never listen to me.”

“Then what are you talking about?”

“Here’s what I’m talking about,” said Ted. “I had a kissing problem when I was in college. Before I quit college. It was complicated. I still think about it.”

“What is this regarding?” Naomi demanded. “If you’re homosexual, I’m going to shoot myself. And you. And Jules probably.”

“What the fuck did I do?” screeched Julia.

We get so much in this passage. It may seem like it is just a perfect distillation of what a drunk conversation sounds like but it is so much more. First, we get the nostalgia of a time when three people didn’t think twice about getting into a car, one of them driving hammered. We get the sexual tension between Naomi and Ted. We get the loneliness of Julia and her desire to bag the enigmatic former high school football star. It is subtly and wickedly funny.

Here’s a passage from a Mitch scene. Mitch is in a car with five other teenage boys, all with specifically appropriate nicknames that will make zero sense unless you read the explanations, which is as it should be, and they are discussing the recent bad acts of their football coach and other matters.

“You know what would be cool?” Zebra asked rhetorically. “It would be cool if we could somehow plant cameras all over the school, or maybe even inside random houses. Then we could use the photographs to sexually blackmail people.”

“I heard,” said Curtis-Fritz, “that when Laidlaw’s wife left town for three days to take care of her dying mother, Tina McAndrew stayed at his house for the entire time. She would get up in the morning and make him pancakes.”

“That did not happen,” said Mitch. “There is no way that could have happened. He’s got three kids. Don’t you think the kids would notice that there’s a different woman in the house, having sex with their dad and feeding them pancakes?”

“I don’t know,” said Curtis-Fritz. “Maybe she she stayed in the basement.”

“I think you should get to play more,” Weezie said to Mitch. “I don’t care what Laidlaw thinks. You’re way smarter than Becker or Groff, even if you don’t always throw so good. And if you do play tonight, and if we run Flood Right 64, throw it to me in the flat. I’m always open in that play. Always. Every time. But they never throw it to me.”

The opening riff from “Band on the Run” came over the stereo.

“You see what I fucking mean?” said Zebra. “Q-98 is terrible. Wings? Who are these queers? I don’t like old songs.”

It was at this specific juncture that Ainge’s Oldsmobile passed a 1974 Plymouth Barracuda. The ‘Cuda was clean and the ‘Cuda was yellow. Its driver looked straight ahead, oblivious to the six people staring into his vehicle’s interior.

This was the point where five conversations became one conversation.

“Don’t even start with that shit,” Drug Man said to Curtis-Fritz. “We are not having this argument again. I’m only warning you once.”

“We don’t have to have it,” said Curtis-Fritz. “We don’t need to have an argument, because you know I’m right.”

“Not it’s not because you’re right. It’s because you’re a fucking cum receptacle.”

The one uniting conversation was who would win in a fight between Cubby Candy and an enormous kid named Grendel (which is the name of one of my cats, I feel I need to say). And in this conversation, we again get so much. The bizarre tendency among male teenagers to rename themselves. The chaos that ensues when so many young men are in one car. The obsessive theoretical conversations. The musical snobbery and tendency to see anything older than ten years in the past as old. But the best part is the fact that in this novel wherein some of the kids are interested in the fact that 1984 was around the corner and they had all read Orwell and even in their disturbing musings on what their future held, they still fantasized about a school with cameras everywhere. Now, of course, most schools have cameras and no one gets any sexual blackmail out of it.

Finally, let me share some Horace with you. Horace is gathered with his friends, drinking coffee, complaining about a woman who is running rough-shod over other women in a Bible study group. It degenerates in a manner that is both topical and typical.

“I can’t take it,” he said. “I just cannot take it. It’s like I’m living with the goddamn Ayatollah. From the start of supper until the end of Carson, all she does is rant about how Melba Hereford is a witch who needs to be thrown in the river. I keep telling Vernetta to just quit the goddamn Bible group if it causes her so much suffering, but she refuses. She thinks that’s what Melba wants. As if Melba cares about anyone who isn’t named Melba! The crazy old biddy. That goes for both of them. I don’t know which biddy is loonier. I’d really like to know if my wife is crazier than Melba.”

“If it’s a horse apiece,” said Marvin, “who gives a damn?”

“No shit,” said Gary.

Horace smiled and blew his nose. Marvin Windows knew what he was talking about.

“So, what are our thoughts on Grenada?” asked Horace. “Do we have an opinion on our situation, Marvin?”

“Do I have an opinion on what?”

“On Grenada,” said Horace. “We invaded the island of Grenada yesterday.”

“Where the Sam Hill is Grenada?”

“East of Central America,” said Horace. “They only have twelve hundred men in their entire military. The war is already over. Reagan just made the announcement. We won.”

“Why did we invade Grenada?” asked Marvin.

“We had to rescue some American medical students,” said Horace.

“There was a Marxist coup,” said Gary. “The Marxists are against medical students.”

“Huh,” said Marvin. “Well, I don’t have any opinion on the matter. I didn’t see the newspaper.”

Again, excellent topicality in this conversation but in it, we see that nothing really changes. The boys in the car, if they are lucky, will grow up and bitch and bicker like these old men in the diner. And some of them will be well-versed in current events and some will be clueless and despite their life experiences, they will still seem slightly like boys. And I was sure Mitch would become Horace as he aged, smarter and slightly deeper than his peers. I wonder if anyone else saw the similarities between them.

I think this book will become a part of the few books I re-read periodically. I read this book and the truth of all these people rang true to me from the first page and despite all of the marvelous dialogue, all the point-on descriptions, despite the overall mastery of this book, I think the real reason to read it is because it is so true. I intend to read everything from Klosterman I can get my hands on. I want to see how much more truth he may have to convey to me.

Clown Girl by Monica Drake

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Clown Girl: A Novel

Author: Monica Drake

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I initially purchased this thinking it would be a good idea for my other site devoted to odd books. But while this book has an unusual heroine living in an unusual subculture, it skirts the criteria I use to determine an odd book.

Availability: Published in 2006 by Hawthorne Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Nita is a clown. She lives in Baloneytown, waiting for her boyfriend, Rex, to return to her. She is a tenant in a house with a pot-selling burnout and his hostile and clever girlfriend, living in a tiny room with her beloved dog and her clown accoutrements. Nita loses items precious to her and longs to get them back, and dreams of a time when she can combine high art, literature and the profession of being a clown. Also, she meets a policeman who is clearly smitten with her though he has no idea what she looks like under her makeup because she lives her life completely as a clown. In Nita’s tale, Drake manages to tell a very familiar story but employs such unusual elements that one does not wholly realize that Nita could just as easily been named Bridget Jones or might easily have come from Marian Keyes’ Shopaholic series. Nita is feckless, self-absorbed, head in the clouds, in love with a cretin and her job is often in jeopardy. She has a bitchy nemesis, there is a strong, kind man waiting for her in the wings, and it takes her entirely too long to pull herself together, though she manages it after tumbling into one unlikely situation after another.

Drake spins a marvelous tale but the real reason I think I loved this book so much is not only that Nita speaks to me in an almost eerie way, but also because Drake inverts the traditional chick-lit story by stating outright what it is that makes these clumsy, clueless, grandiose, insecure women appealing. She makes it clear from the very title what Nita is. She’s a clown. No mincing words. Nita is a clown and Drake shows how hard it is not to be a clown when hiding behind makeup, clothes, images and pie-in-the-sky ideas is all one has ever known. I’m a clown, though less clownish (I hope) as I get older but if you began as a clown, bumbling your way through life, you will find much to like about Nita and her slapstick life. In Nita, using the raucous background of clowns and her inversion of the modern chick-lit novel, Drake creates a character who tells a story we are familiar with but have not wholly heard before.

Though this book is a riff on familiar plots, I don’t want to give an outline of the book because the fantastic disaster as Nita’s life unspools is one of the reasons I think you should read this book. But I will hit on some plot points as I share some of Drake’s writing and parts of the book that truly resonated with me. The novel begins with Nita collapsing, suffering from the effects of a terrible loss – a miscarriage. She is working as a clown at an outdoor event and the heat and likely the effects of her recent miscarriage cause her to pass out. She is taken to the hospital and the thoughts in her head as she navigates being in a frightening place all alone spoke to me and I immediately felt a kinship with Nita. I have no idea if her paranoia would translate to people who have have had excellent experiences with doctors and nurses, but for me, I could have written Nita’s thoughts (and it wasn’t lost on me as I read many of Nita’s thoughts that often the first letter of my own name is seldom pronounced by my fellow Texans, rendering me a de facto “Nita”).

Don’t tell doctors your dreams, ever. Don’t tell them your menstrual cycle. Don’t say you felt anything in your head, or that you might’ve known. If they ask about street drugs, which they will, say no, no matter what. If you say, I feel anxious all the time, you’ll get Valium. Otherwise you’ll get what they call “mood equalizers,” daily doses of who knows what, a gambler’s crapshoot in tinctures of chemicals.

As a clown on the street, I had to keep my wits. I couldn’t take their chemicals.

Don’t tell doctors anything.

This is a cluebat of sorts. Nita suffered a miscarriage before this trip to the ER, but it is also clear she had some frightening experiences with doctors trying to help her correct her brain, a brain that seems very common to me but might seem to others like the kind of skull space that needs tinctures of chemicals. I also relate to this fear of authority’s power more than I care to admit. Also, in this chick-lit inversion, it is refreshing that Nita does not want the drugs that would have just led to another humiliating escapade for a traditional heroine.

Nita takes being a clown very seriously but through the descriptions of the tools Nita uses in her craft, as well as the way Drake describes Nita’s thoughts about the artistic routines Nita wants to perform, we see the utter ridiculousness of Nita’s life. We don’t need Nita sliding down a fireman’s pole showing her panties or putting eyeshadow on in the place of blusher, all visually very clownish actions, to show Nita’s true inner clown. Take this passage about Nita’s approach to balloon animals, bearing in mind that later in the book she wonders about creating The Last Supper in balloon form and feels there is an important message inherent in such an act.

Swollen Sacred Hearts, shrunken wise men, and bloated angels bobbed at my feet, the fruits of my labor. On the shopworn dedication page of Balloon Tying for Christ it said “With appreciation and gratitude for my wife and six lovely children who have borne with me through twelve long years of deprivations while trying to complete this work.” Such martyrs! Balloon Tying for Christ was maybe all of seventeen pages long, with one blank page at the end. The tricks inside, by corporate accounting, were worth hundreds of dollars, Matey, Crack and me, that’s what we earned when high-end work came in. But work didn’t always come. We had to promote and deliver. That book was my cash cow.

It’s hard to think of anything more ridiculous than a 17 page book about making balloon figures for Jesus and how such a book could become the bread and butter to any person, but Drake shows us. She shows us clearly the absolutely insane pieces that make up the whole of Nita.

Nita above may demonstrate how she understands her profession is one of money but she longs to be an artist, a clown interpreting great art and literature (her final blowup with her despicable boyfriend Rex concerns him pirating her Kafka interpretation as told via a clown), but she resents the fact that she is a comedic act or worse, that she should be sexually appealing in her clowning. When one of two female clowns she occasionally works with spells it out for her, it’s not clear that it really sinks in to Nita. Nita simply wants to be a clown artiste and doesn’t like to think of how what she really does applies to what she really wants to do.

“Pssst,” Matey said, in a stage whisper and knocked a hand against her head. “Here’s a clue: Women wear makeup, right? But a man in face paint, people see aahh-rt. You and me, we top out at birthday gigs, and that hurts more than anything I’m doing now. That’s the meat o’ the matter.” She tipped her Chaplin hat. Was it true? Was there a latex ceiling, made-up makeup finish line?

Despite being a clown, and supporting herself, after a fashion, being a clown for parties and even engaging in sexier acts for corporate parties, Nita bitterly resents the way that money destroys what she considers beauty.

Leonardo da Vinci said water was the most destructive force on the planet. Water corrodes metal and eats through rock. But da Vinci forgot about the corrosive power of cash; when money came into a neighborhood, the buildings toppled. Even people disappeared.

Like any stereotypical artiste type, Nita wants purity. She wants pure love, pure work, pure happiness. Just like her grandiose idea of herself interpreting art as a clown, her ideas about what life can really be are just as grandiose and unhappy about settling for anything less. She says:

In a world of clown whores and virgins, I’d cling to the integrity of art.

That doesn’t happen, but even as she is descending into the world of clown prostitution, Nita still has lofty and near-risible goals.

Traditionally, there’s been no delicacy to balloon art. That’s where I’d revolutionize things. Chiaroscuro, sfumato: I’d find a way to translate da Vinco’s painterly tricks into rubber and air.

Maybe I’d pioneer a line of designer balloon colors in da Vinci’s palette. Why stop there? I could have a van Gogh line, a Gauguin line, Toulouse-Lautrec and Tintoretto.

Nita’s delusions carry her to strange places, to strange actions, to stranger results. She wants to be more than a juggling clown at a kid’s party. She wants to be a performance artist, a portrayer of truth. But she is a clown and she proves it over and over again, that her perspective of being a clown will never match up to her dreams of artistic relevance. And like the heroines in chick-lit, she decides to alter her body but instead of dieting or buying clothes she cannot afford, Nita decides to don a sand-filled fat suit to turn herself into a face-painted voluptuary. And what fine slapstick would be complete if she did not, in fact, juggle fire in such a get-up?

I’d be a sassy, busty clown girl juggling fire. Of course–why not? I’d play to crowds high and low. I’d find the fine line between Crack’s clown whore and my own comic interpretation, work both sides and move easily from the comedy of burlesque to striptease, slapstick to sexy. I’d graduate from Clown Girl to Clown Woman.

Then we go from a padded body suit to the sublimely ridiculous.

I’d do a new silent, sexy version of Kafka: Gregor Samsa wakes up, finds he’s metamorphosed into a woman with an hourglass figure–where every second counts!–and his world’s on fire. I’d do a busty Beef-Brisket Dance, on fire. Two Clowns in a Shower on fire. And Who’s Hogging the Water? –that’d mixed genre, soft porn plus fire. Even an ordinary bodacious bod and the pins on fire would be a new show altogether.

But Nita is still deluded. She can’t make it from being a clown girl to a clown woman as long as she is a clown. As long as she clings to her outrageous ideas, she will never be able to find any real truth. Given what a fabulous disaster she is, it ends about how you sensed it would as soon as you read the word “fire.” Nita sets herself and the yard on fire. And oh yeah, she’s fire juggling in the middle of the night. This is also a very good example of the both extreme and subtle humor Drake wields, making Nita a borderline caricature but never stepping completely into a place where the reader cannot respond to Nita’s plight.

“Crapola! Crapola!” I ran in a circle and threw myself down. I rolled on the grass where the grass wasn’t on fire, but the Pendulous Breasts resisted my momentum, and everywhere I rolled sparks flew. The Pendulous Breasts duck-quacked and chirped a cacophony of party sounds. I was guilty and now I was on fire. Who would’ve known hell was so efficient. A few mistakes and hell came to me faster than room service.

Because she is burned and experiencing heart problems, Nita returns to the hospital, where she again tells a terrible tale from her past. Without telling the reader the reasons for Nita’s paranoia, Drake makes it all too clear what happens to some girls who enter the maw of a hospital when they are alone, weird and full of self-delusion.

Here’s what I know now: never let a misunderstanding go unclarified in a hospital, same as in a school, jail, or prison. Never carry a diary with you, not even a day planner if you write notes in it. Don’t say, “Yes, that’s mine,” to any old scrap of nothing, to what might have been interesting in the free world.

The hospital, it’s a gateway, The path to incarceration.

Your best bet is don’t even write anything down. Ever. Most of all, don’t go near the hospital unless your problem is obvious as a bullet or a broken leg, and don’t go more than once. Otherwise you’ll learn about a two-doctor hold. Doctor Two-Hold, a seventy-two-hour detainment–and seventy-two hours can be longer if it’s late at night or over a weekend.

A deus ex machina in the typical chick-lit form of a man saves Nita from the probable 72-hour psych lock down that awaits her after coming into the ER burned, wearing an exploding fat suit and in full clown regalia.

…Jerrod had seen me inside and out, burned and in the psych ward. And still here he was, beside me. But the blood and the burns were all circumstantial, a string of bad luck, the anomaly. I didn’t want to think that was me–a wreck, a mess, a mortal.

But she is a wreck and a mess. You want to despair of Nita but you can’t, not quite. She periodically shows glimmers of insight that peek out when she is daydreaming about her despicable boyfriend and making an art show out of balloons tied to resemble Renaissance paintings. This scene, for example: Nita has lost her rubber chicken, whom she calls “Plucky” and put up reward posters all over her low-income and crime-infested neighborhood, resulting in dozens of people coming by with various rubber chickens trying to collect the reward.

“Maybe your Plucky jus’ fell in with the wrong crowd, maybe she was looking for love and thought she’d found it…but you can’t trust nobody round here, that’s what Plucky knows now. Uh huh.” The woman’s eyes were flat and dull. She’s quit looking at me. “Plucky maybe learned a few things, and you say, ‘No way, no second chances,’ and jus’ like that, man, turn her ass back out on the street.”

I said, “Who are we talking about here?”

And who were they talking about? The worn down woman at the door or Nita herself? It’s hard to tell here, but later revelations show Nita is far more in tune with herself than even she would like to admit.

I was good at pool. Physics, I understood. I knew all about vectors. That was my original goal in clowning–to create the illusion of defying physics with muscular comedy. I wanted to be able to stand when it looked like I should fall, to spring up when gravity would pull down, and to balance at impossible angles. I wanted to win, or at least stay on my feet, when it looked like I was losing.

Losing is a thing Nita understands so it stands to reason she wants to be able to look good doing it. But she also knows that she is not ever going to be able to make it in a more rarefied world.

One lone lobster beat a claw against the glass wall of a small tank. The lobster’s narrow, empty world was perched over a frozen sea; blue Styrofoam tray after tray of Dungeness crab, leggy purple squid, and bundled smelt rested on chopped ice below. Tick, tick. The lobster knocked, as though to flag down help. Across the aisle what had once been a herd of grass-fed cattle now lay silent in bloody pools of iced New York strip steak, flank steak, ribs, tongues, and burger. Edible flowers bloomed on a small green stand, a miniature field ready for harvest. Tap tap. Tap. Tap tap. A lobster S O S. Get me out of this dead heaven. I knew the feeling.

Yeah, and this inversion of the chick-lit rang the truest to me because unlike her counterparts, Nita can’t just pick the right guy, clean herself up, lose a few pounds, get her credit card debt under control and she’ll suddenly find herself living the good life when the author rewards her feminine will to change with the perfect rich man to pave her way. Nita would feel even more like a clown in a monied world of privilege.

My heart, ready to burst, spoke in the fast Morse code of biology: you’ll die or go crazy, die or go crazy, die or go crazy, die or go crazy... I had seconds to live. My heart was too big for my chest, my head hummed. I couldn’t move fast enough, had to get out of there.

As Nita shows how her damaged heart is telling her what to do, I could not help but think of Sylvia Plath’s Esther, whose heart beat, “I am, I am.” Nita’s heart tells her she has two options, both horrible, and given the hints of diagnosed craziness in her past, this passage was terrible because despite the loony ideas Nita had concerning her work and her art, at the core of her, the heart, so to speak, in times of grave stress her only options seemed to be to go crazy or die.

I like to think Nita’s heart went to such dark places not because she was indeed depressed (though she is definitely desperate) but rather because she knew on a very basic level that her dreams of clown artistry were hogwash, an attempt to cloak herself in dreams so she would not have to look at the real problems in her life. Nita has no family, she lost her baby, and she has no allies.

Emancipated minor? I’d been one for years–emancipated but no longer a minor, and I was ready to have a team, a side, a family. Somebody to back me up. A person shouldn’t be emancipated so long.

Sadly, the person she pins her hopes on, Rex, is not worth her care, even as a clown girl. Here’s a quote from Rex:

Rex laughed then, a mean, sharp snort. “Impossible? You want to talk impossible? This is all bullshit, babe. Youw ant to think you’re not a hooker, just a clown on a private date. Think you’re an artist, working a new car lot? I’ll tell you something–that’s not art. It’s just a story you’re making up. Maybe the same story you’d tell our baby, if we still had a baby. Mommy’s not a hooker, she’s a corporate party girl. No wonder the kid bailed. Christ, maybe the thing’s lucky you dumped it.”

As horrible as this was, as horrible as him rubbing her face in her miscarriage could ever be, he has a point. Nita’s no artist. She tells herself stories to get herself through and had created a fantasy about being a family with Rex as she had about her work. It hits her hard.

A deus ex machina reunited Nita with her rubber chicken and her lost dog, and once she has the dog back, she has to do something to save her dog’s life. Her roommates like to feed the dog pot and to keep the dog from becoming deathly ill, she needs peroxide to induce vomiting. However, she shows up at the convenience store wearing the ragged remains of the fat suit, her clown makeup smeared, and she cannot get anyone to take her seriously. Because she is a clown, she cannot impart upon anyone that she is in the middle of an emergency and she finally begins to see how she is hindering herself by imbuing her odd ideas with a patina artistic endeavor.

There was my face in the aluminum rim of the hot-foods incubator, around jo-jos and chicken, I was reflected in the glass of the Coke cooler and the grease-smeared deli case, all powdery makeup, black liner and big red lips, the face of a clown hooker right out of an old-time jail-time act. My one Caboosey boob hung free.
The only show was my life and it was a bomb. The only routine was the daily one. I’d been in clown costume so long, I wasn’t an artist. I was a freak.

She takes a good look at herself, where she lives and the people she knows and she realizes it’s time to change.

They, my friends, were hucksters, drug dealers, and bullies. But in that world of defeatism, I was the jester, the fall guy, the rubber chicken. I was the one who put on face paint and shades, limping in one big shoe.

And if this was a regular chick-lit novel, there would be another deus ex machina that would help Nita wipe off the clown makeup, would help her find two regular shoes so she could walk tall and proud, a job would magically fall into her lap and the new man who was lurking at her side unnoticed would sweep her off her feet and Nita would realize she could stand on her own two feet again, though she wouldn’t have to since the new guy would be rich and ready to marry her. That doesn’t happen in this chick-lit inversion but the ending is satisfying in its own way.

This book surprised me. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I think it managed to walk down the path of mainstream chick-lit novels to satisfy my occasional need for glurge, but it also did truly invert the real goal of such novels and their well-worn paths by giving us a heroine whose hidden past remained hidden, whose life really was ridiculous, whose world resembled places I am familiar with and whose transformation showed herself she could not remain a clown and achieve any of the goals she wanted in her life as a person. I highly recommend this book and hope Drake is writing new novel. I very much would like to see what she says next.

Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Songs for the Missing

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Why Did I Read This Book: Because I loved O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, as well as his book, The Night Country.

Availability: Published by Penguin Books in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I love Stewart O’Nan’s writing. I admit that no matter what, O’Nan will have a special place in my book-heart because of his book, The Night Country. I read it the first time in October of 2008, during a time when I was completely crazy, made mad from drugs given to me for a misdiagnosed condition. I was hearing voices in my head and the book had a specific message for me that I don’t know if I could explain now that I am sane, relatively speaking. I reread it in October 2009 and it was a completely different book for me yet still so amazing that I suspect that I will read it again and again every October. I probably won’t ever discuss it here because when a book is that special, you don’t really feel the need to discuss it with anyone and you certainly can’t countenance anyone saying, “Well, it was… okay, I guess.” Special books for me need to remain undiscussed even as I recommend everyone read the book and the author.

So with that disclaimer out of the way, it’s clear I am an unabashed fan of O’Nan’s writing. Yet I pride myself on my brutal honesty when I discuss books. So it has to be said that Songs for the Missing didn’t hit my love meter the way O’Nan’s other books have. There are many reasons for this and the one that is clearest for me is that the one character I related to the most went missing. Simple as that. As enjoyable as this book was to read in parts, I did not ever have a deep connection to any of the characters in the book. Despite the fact that I think this is a good-enough book, putting it heads above many other books I have read recently, I wanted to loved it and couldn’t.

Songs for the Missing begins with Kim Larsen as she hangs out with her friends and prepares to leave for college. She goes to the lake with her friends one afternoon and leaves to make her shift at a convenience store and is never seen again. The book deals with how her friends, boyfriend, mother, father and sister deal with her disappearance. The police investigation, what to tell the police and what not to tell them, the pleas to the media, the desperate fight to keep Kim relevant in the news as her case grows colder and colder. I suspect the latter was another reason why I did not love this book as much as I wanted to love it: O’Nan replicates all too well the frustration, lingering desperation and, frankly, boredom that goes along with a loved one going missing. The crushing work, the tiresome waiting, the complete lack of resolution for years are hard to make interesting.

Still, despite the fact that this book at times fell flat with me, O’Nan still does an amazing job of doing what he does best: showing the tangled complexities of human relationships. He does this best with Lindsay, Kim’s younger sister, a girl very different than her athletic, engaging, missing sister. Shy, bookish, awkward, Kim’s disappearance causes Lindsay discomfort above and beyond the obvious. Lindsay is suddenly on display, her every action subject to a scrutiny that makes retreating into the safety of her room a guilt-laden experience.

It was always the problem: without Kim she would be free to be her own person, but she would also be picked on or ignored because that person was weak.

In bed, with the light out, she resolved to be strong tomorrow, as if she could pay her back that way. “If it was you,” her father has said, “do you think Kim would just be sitting in her room?” From now on, she would do whatever she had to, whatever she could. For once Linsday would save her.

You want to throttle her father for saying that to her, for laying a trip like that on her, but he is just as clueless as Lindsay is. All he knows is that his eldest teen daughter is missing and her sister is hiding from everyone, creating a problem. There is nothing he can do, there is nothing Lindsay can so, and the reader knows it in a way that anyone actually experiencing this sort of situation cannot. And that frustration should have made me engage more with this book than I did but it didn’t. This frustration was not a tension one sees in a well plotted mystery but rather the boredom one feels when one is treading water.

The book is filled with awkwardness. A mother engaging experts in keeping a missing child in the media and selecting “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as the song for people to request on the radio, a song her missing daughter would have loathed. A haggard father spending weeks searching in the place where his daughter’s car is found, never sleeping. A family gathering with an elderly grandmother in a nursing home. Friends keeping information to themselves about Kim’s ties to a drug dealer. Lindsay developing a crush on her missing sister’s boyfriend. A family developing a sense of normalcy only to have the rug yanked out from under them. Yet through all this expert telling of the intensity and complexity of human emotion, there was sense of something missing, a golden cord to hold it all together. It seems very on the nose, a book about the missing that is missing something, but there you are.

But there were some definable moments wherein I did not like the content, moments I can put my finger on. O’Nan gets pop culture wrong in this book. I marvel at how he handles blue collar and working class culture but elements of this particular book seemed yanked from a hazy 1970s memory of youth, not a youth of five or even ten years ago. It’s hard to explain but the sense of being in a completely different time is there. The passages of Kim interacting with her friends just did not ring true. Worse, it is hard to tell if the cultural misconceptions that O’Nan puts out there were meant to serve as an example of the chasm between a character’s sense and reality. Take this, for example, when Kim’s mother is telling a police officer yet again about the clothes Kim was wearing when she went missing:

He asked twice about her shirt, a baby blue Old Navy tee she’d bought for herself. Fran remembered saying she could buy a lifetime supply at Wal-Mart for that, and Kim giving her a put-upon look – sensible, out-of-touch Mom.

I have no idea who is wrong here: Fran or O’Nan. Yes, mothers say dumb things like that but Fran seems clear that she thinks an Old Navy t-shirt is quite expensive. It seems as if Fran saw the price tag and seems to think that Kim spent an arm and a leg on a t-shirt at a notoriously cheap place to buy clothes. But nothing from Old Navy is that expensive compared to clothing from WalMart and I walked away from this scene having no idea what it was O’Nan wanted me to know about Fran. I mostly took away that O’Nan is himself unaware of what some things must cost. There are far too many moments like this wherein I read chunks of information and have no idea what I was meant to understand about the characters involved.

I think this novel failed for me so profoundly because, in a sense, O’Nan created too well the tedium, the long, boring horror that comes along with searching for the missing, but also because the most interesting person in the book is removed from the picture. The story of friends moving on after Kim disappears, of how her family copes, simply isn’t interesting. Kim’s complex nature makes a caricature out of her awkward sister, underachiever boyfriend, over-involved mother. You want more of Kim and you can’t have her. I remember how much I loved being in Manny’s industrious and conflicted mind in Last Night at the Lobster and how haunted I was by tortured Tim in The Night Country and I never developed that connected feeling reading this book. It was… just not as fine as O’Nan’s other books.

It feels odd to have good book disappoint me. I can’t wholly recommend this book but I can say you could definitely and probably will read worse than this novel. But I don’t sense this book will be an annual book for me, one I reread when the season is right.