The Pugilist at Rest|
Little, Brown, $18.95
by Sven Birkerts
Prose styles, like hemlines, serve as an obscure barometer of changes in the cultural life. A barometer because they are in some way linked to the larger atmosphere (the Zeitgeist), and obscure because no one can quite determine how. We've come a long way since the days when Hemingway's clipped diction was universally understood as representing a generation's retraction of soul before the violence of history. Literary styles are now many and various, pitched to coterie audiences. Writers tend to work in the vein of: in the vein of Toni Morrison or Thomas Pynchon or Ann Beattie or Douglas Coupland. . . .
If we still have anything like a dominant contemporary mode it is probably the one derived from the stories of the late Raymond Carver. Unadorned and understated, lyrical but grim, this prose is a fanfare for the common man, a heart-music of diminished expectations:
My wife brought me up here the first time. That's when we were still together, trying to make things work out. She brought me here and she stayed around for an hour or two, talking to Frank Martin in private. Then she left. The next morning Frank Martin got me aside and said, "We can help you. If you want help and want to listen to what we say." But I didn't know if they could help me or not. Part of me wanted help. But there was another part.
(From "Where I'm Calling From")
The popularity of the Carver style has to do not only with its supple adaptability its openness to the vast middle register of American speech but also with the fact that it is the staple of workshop instruction in hundreds of writing programs around the country. His kind of prose is writeable, readable and teachable, and as such it has become a kind of norm, a ground base against which other prose options can be figured.
But it is something else, too. Carver's is a prose not just of hard knocks, but also of limitations. The tones and rhythmic cadences inscribe a near horizon, a circumference within which men and women are penned, wherein all human endeavor, subject to entropy, must take place. Carver's sentences, never mind the stories themselves, enact the middle and lower classes' vision of their own constrained possibilities. Read a few pages and you will see what I mean.
But why all of this talk about Carver? I suppose because my sense of the Carver "tradition" supplies the background, helps to explain why I was so startled when I read one after the other coincidence two recent story collections, Thom Jones's The Pugilist at Rest and Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. Let me straightaway cite a passage from each.
I was oddly frightened and unconnected, but then as the snake passed, the black night turned purple and I felt such an infusion of power that I wanted to put down my rifle and dance a shaman's dance. I knew nothing was going to kill me on this mission.
If you tap into the purple field you get a sixth sense, heightened hearing, a field of vision that picks up anything that shouldn't be there, the smell of Charles, and even on some of the blackest nights on earth, I had the ability to see Charles in fields of purple literally sense his location, see his energy and assume control of it and be the first to kill.
(Thom Jones, "Break on Through")
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn't know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That's what gave her so much power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere.
(Denis Johnson, "Car Crash")
Jones and Johnson both write harsh and often violent stories about men in extremis boxers on the ropes, drug addicts, soldiers in combat, the kind of people who move between bars, transient hotels, and emergency rooms. Both know how to bring a story to a pitch, raising the stakes and getting everything to hang on the turn of a card. And for this alone they are gravely compelling to read.
But the discussion of theme and character will have to be reserved for another review. What interests me about these writers, what makes me wonder if hemlines might not be changing again, is their narrative style, the kind of voice they are able to get onto the page. In each case and I fear that short excerpts cannot do them justice the Carver mode is conjured up, laid down as a kind of expectation, and then it is blown wide open to produce an effect that is the very opposite of what Carver generally achieved.
What do I mean? Let me try from another angle. The characters in Jones's and Johnson's stories are not, in premise, very different from those who populate Carver's world. They are more edgy, to be sure. Closer to drugs than drink certainly in Johnson. But their backgrounds, their milieus, their favored modes of interaction all belong to that familiar world, as do many of their turns of speech. But where Carver gathers his stories toward epiphanies of limit his characters are enlightened when they recognize what the world is really like and how one must make peace if one is to live Jones and Johnson work for the opposite. Their characters amass a frustration and rage that force them out of the circuit of acceptance. Though they often go about their business in Carver's cadences, by story's end they have generally been thrown free into ecstasies of violence, into madness, into drug-induced free-fall.
And here is the paradox. While the release of the characters often results in destruction and death, limits more conclusive than what we generally encounter in Carver's work, the language is pulled into a realm of near-vertiginous freedom. We listen to a Dionysian music, a keening beyond all strictures of sense-making. The stories in these two books I sense they are hard-won jolt us with their strange sorrow and dislocation and unexpected gestures of reverence. Singular, they defy all projections for the genre, a genre all but bludgeoned into banality by workshop instruction. Indeed, taken together they might signify something they may offer diagnosis, or prophecy. But of what? Who will tell us?
by Don Colburn
Lawrence Raab's gracefully haunting poems explore the fine lines of our temporal lives between distance and intimacy, limits and possibility, present and past. They look back from middle age, wistfully but without bitterness, to a time when "everything important/has not yet happened." Not that they idealize the past; fate is odder than that, more unnerving.
In the quietly moving title poem which opens the book and sets its tone, Raab finds himself daydreaming again:
I thought of how, looking a long way back,
In another poem, "The Uses of Nostalgia," Raab's musing discovers a lovely closing image for what he misses most about the past:
like the moment when we take our placesWhat We Don't Know About Each Other, Raab's fourth volume of poems, was a winner in the 1992 National Poetry Series, selected by Stephen Dunn. Not only does it include consistently fine poems, but they are thoughtfully gathered and ordered. Unlike many collections, they make a book. The arrangement finds effective juxtapositions, both thematic and tonal: "The Bad Muse" followed immediately by "Bad Dog," for example, and "Learning How to Write" beside "Minor Painter, Paris, 1954."
With the title poem as overture, the book is in four sections. The first and third comprise 16 poems each, and the second and fourth each consists of a longer poem, or sequence. These longer poems are more dreamlike lyrical, slippery, fleeting, floating their turns less logical. The eight-part sequence called "The Other World" opens:
There is another one.In Raab's poetic vision, there is always another world, a ghost in the window, a story behind the story or underneath. What is glibly termed "the real world" is no more real than any other the perceived world, the ignored world, the longed-for world, the fictional world, the world of memory remade in light of the present.
Later in "The Other World":
I won't say that storyRaab begins his poems with ordinary moments and then, by listening hard for the music underneath, discovers their transforming truth, his own story.
Many of these poems have the fluency of a letter, despite their taut lines. They are clear in the best sense: not obvious or belabored, but telling. They have the translucence that does not preclude mystery.
Or surprise. Even possibility is tenuous, tinged with danger. "Learning How to Write" ends with traffic moving slowly in the rain "since at any moment and for no reason/someone might run out there." In "Dead Elms," a chainsaw's work reveals "a view of a building/no one wanted to see more clearly." In the opening poem there is "the sweet possibility/of snow in the air." A patch of ice on the sidewalk is "bright and brittle." An October warm spell leaves the speaker "blessed/and disconcerted." The poem moves through Prufrockian turns, using the line endings as pivot: "the right/or the wrong thing," "this/or that day," "What we know/or don't know about each other." Recalling a spinout in a car on ice, the speaker confides, "Later I could afford to be afraid,/when it didn't matter."
Throughout, there are beautifully startling images: "the human pain washed off/like dust from the road"; "the dark scribbles of trees." The brief poem, "A Crow," opens: "Here is the strict, abstract/light of winter." From "Beauty": "The man with everything/looks down the barrel of his gun,/ which is loneliness."
Trees find their way into most of these poems, and there are other recurring images: the aftermath of a storm, clear skies full of stars, the change of seasons, a crow on a branch, lighted windows, "this world." Although these risk becoming visual or verbal tics, they seem to provide triggers for Raab's imagination, wit, and restless questioning.
What these poems don't discover is moral ease or certainty. A poem called "Something Sensible About Desire" begins, "If we agree that the truth is never/only what we want to believe . . ." One titled "Lies" confesses: "And few of us worried about God, having decided/we could forgive ourselves/when the time came for it." In "The Shakespeare Lesson," a teacher is dismayed to find that his students dislike Cleopatra for being unpredictable, and prefer Caesar to Antony "because Caesar knew what he wanted." The teacher wonders, "Could he ask them not to feel/so certain about what they felt?" The best he can do is tell them "it was complicated."
"Daily Life," a comic rumination inspired by the effort to rid a home of bugs and other vermin, mocks its own temptation to invoke "Thoreau in his cabin" and "Wordsworth among his daffodils and ruins":
I thought of all the great poemsIn Raab's poems, reason and faith are not as far apart as they sometimes seem. His subject, implied in the book's title, is the limits of knowing. As he shows in "Magic Problems," we can't watch a magic trick without simultaneously wondering how it was accomplished and realizing that "our pleasure requires not knowing how." When the magician pulls a burning torch from an empty sack, it's "a good trick, but frightening/if we didn't know about illusions."
by Matthew Goodman
Observing the very different set of problems confronting writers across the fault of the Cold War, Philip Roth once commented, "In Czechoslovakia, nothing is permitted and everything matters; in the United States everything is permitted and nothing matters." Roth wasn't speaking specifically of the Czech writer Ivan Klíma, but his words certainly apply: Until the recent democratization, Klíma's work was banned in Czechoslovakia, available only in illegal underground editions. And his work was banned precisely because it mattered for perhaps no other Czech writer has so powerfully and painfully evoked the psychic toll of life under totalitarianism.
Many American readers first become acquainted with Klíma's work through his novel Love and Garbage (recently released in a Vintage paperback). That book was written in the mid-1980s, at a time when Soviet hegemony over Czechoslovakia seemed most entrenched and prospects for liberation most hopeless. As such, it is a deeply depressed book, in which despair has given way to something even darker, more nihilistic. The book's protagonist, a writer fascinated by Kafka, has taken a job as a Prague street sweeper; from his vantage point amid the torn newspapers and broken baby carriages, he muses darkly on the ways in which modern society has reduced the private ideal of love and the social ideal of justice and indeed human life itself, as witnessed in the holocausts in Germany and Kampuchea to garbage.
Judge on Trial was written a decade earlier, in the aftermath of 1968's Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion, when some kind of resistance still seemed possible. It tells the story of Adam Kindl, a Czech judge who has become increasingly cynical, convinced that "the idea of a world in which people controlled their own destiny was only a foolish dream; quite simply a fable we like to tell ourselves about an imaginary paradise."
The event that crystallizes Adam's discontent is a murder trial he has been ordered to oversee. In a rundown tenement in one of Prague's working-class districts, an elderly landlady and her granddaughter have been gassed to death; one of her lodgers has been charged with the crime, and has apparently confessed to it. In assigning him the case, the judicial authorities make clear to Adam that they fully expect the lodger to be convicted and to receive the death penalty. The critical piece of evidence of which all the actors in this distasteful drama are well aware, even though it is never mentioned is that some years before, as a young judge, Adam wrote an article opposing capital punishment (a penalty often invoked on those unfortunates deemed enemies of the revolution). However, the Party's mandarins censored the article before it even came to print, and Adam was identified as a potential trouble-maker; now, as the state consolidates power after the Soviet invasion, the Party is demanding that Adam obey its dictates. He must swallow his principles and order the death penalty, or else face the certain loss of his career: in this case, it turns out, the prisoner is not the only one on trial.
The central narrative is interspersed throughout with a series of first-person reminiscences, entitled "Before we drink from the waters of Lethe," in which Adam traces his downward spiral from idealism into disillusionment. As a young man still recovering from the terrors of the Nazi occupation, Adam gives himself over to the promise of communism, offering attractively simple remedies for society's ills "a world whose inhabitants could be sorted out into guilty and innocent, defendants and judges." Wanting to serve the cause of justice, Adam becomes a lawyer, and is eventually promoted to judge. However, it is not long before he sees how those early, noble ideals have been twisted into monsters; most relevant to his own situation, he sees how the law and, in particular, the seductive enforcement of it has become a shockingly effective instrument for the maintenance of the state's corrupt rule: "We were all supposed to be obedient subjects of the state, we were supposed to live in the awareness that we owed our every breath and our very existence on this earth to the benevolence of the state. And how better could the state demonstrate its benevolence than by pardoning us our crimes? And what more effective way was there of rendering us dependent on the state than allowing us to walk freely only thanks to its indulgence?"
Compared to, say, his countryman Milan Kundera, Klíma's prose style is laconic, allowing us none of the comforts of lyricism or philosophy. The book is long, and its pacing is deliberate. The horrors pile up slowly, methodically, ultimately revealing the nature of life under totalitarianism: the multitude of humiliations that must be endured, the agony that is at once social and intensely personal. Like the best of Gordimer or Grass or DeLillo, Klíma's story exists on the strange and fascinating border between the public and private worlds.
And although he is specifically writing of life in the Czech People's Republic a state that has since passed, in Lenin's evocative phrase, into "the dustbin of history" Ivan Klíma has courageously posed a question that still confronts all of us, in societies capitalist and post-communist, on both sides of the former geopolitical divide: "whether a society which condones or actually requires the oppression of even one of its members does not in fact forego the right to demand respect for the law from anyone."
by Alexandra Johnson
Early on in Melanie Rae Thon's masterful new novel, two women stand over a sink late at night. Sharla Wilder offers Iona Moon a white dish towel to pat her hands dry. "It'll ruin it," says Iona. It's an impossibly misplaced but haunting hesitation. For what has brought her to Sharla Wilder's kitchen at this hour is that she has barely survived a near gang rape. Her body is bloodied. She is afraid her hands will soak the towel crimson. It's a small detail, but one of many such quietly powerful moments in Iona Moon in which the tenderness only underlines the unsparing brutality of each character's life. Buried deep in Iona's memory is her failure to comfort Sharla when she was locked in a root cellar for a week by her father until self-aborting the child she was carrying.
In Sharla's kitchen Iona weeps "for all the mothers who turned away too soon, who took off their glasses and died, who did not want to see, for all the daughters who spoke the truth too late to be saved, who could only weep and hang on to each other in a bright kitchen on a quiet street." Both women will survive thanks to small acts of caring like these bringing back a dollar's worth of chocolate for a dying parent, stroking the artificial limb of a lover. If Thon possesses an unflinching eye for brutality for the psychic scars of neglect and sexual abuse so too for the tiny acts of caring, a brave resigned clarity in the face of pain. As Iona realizes, "It is the wounded heart that makes us human in the end."
Thon weaves a Faulknerian tale of the fate of four teenagers after the suicide of Everett Fry, a Vietnam vet who returns to their small Iowa farm town of Water Falls. When Matt Fry Everett's brother and Iona's only friend turns wild, Iona takes up with Jay Tyler, the son of a rich dentist. Willy Hamilton drives them around Kila Flats at night, trying not to watch them in the rearview mirror. Intricately interwoven are the stories of their parents, generations stunted by failure and violence. It is Thon's considerable achievement that she is able to lay bare the scarred psyches of both men and women, lives collapsed in on themselves, hearts haunted by hope but riddled with guilt.
The novel is, above all, the coming of age story of Iona Moon herself. "The kind of girl who didn't mind the cold vinyl of the backseat," Iona is the neglected daughter of a potato farmer. She's a girl men speak to in the backseat of a car, but not in the high school cafeteria. Her shame isn't that her boots stink of cow shit, but that her brother abused her. "This is my life, she thought, the foothills, the fields, the blank sky; a fence, a dirt road; the specks of distant animals." After her mother's death, she flees to Seattle and meets Eddie Birdheart, an Indian working next to the convenience store where she takes a job. Despite a brief healing interlude with the married Eddie, Iona realizes that "you take yourself with you." She returns to face the self she thought she had left behind.
In Iona Moon, Melanie Rae Thon has carved out a fictional territory that is uniquely hers: gritty, unsentimental, unsparing, a hard-edged realism combined with a spare lyrical style. She finds the world's terrible beauty in the ordinary, the difficult. It's a world where girls dream of dead mothers while doing dirty dishes left by brothers and fathers. For Iona is every girl working the late-night shift in convenience stores, the girl asked to swap sex for cigarettes, the girl hitching a ride to nowhere. Yet we never feel that she is a lost soul. Her generosity in sex, in life saves her. She soon learns that freedom, like pain, is always a choice.
As she did in Girls in the Grass, Thon catches the edgy underside of adolescence, its uneasy buddy system, the excitement and menace of sexuality. Its taunts and terrors for both sexes. There's Willy, whose two monstrously fat sisters sit on him until he pees, making him self-conscious and sexually shy. There's the crippled Jay, once the star swimmer, now ashamed of the cane he uses. And there's Iona, for whom "boys were all knot and bone, push and shove. . . . Their wet hair smelled like dog fur; their hands smelled of gasoline. They whispered names. But not yours."
They grow up, these children, implosive and edgy, lives boobytrapped with rage and despair. Thon captures both the brutal monotony and unpredictability of that life: "a blight to pock every potato in the field; a husband sitting in the dark drinking whiskey, breaking glasses in the middle of the night; a calf with five legs and a brooding cow tangled in barbed wire; three sons who guzzled beer and drove to the dump at dusk to plug rats." It's the women who take the blame: Iona; Muriel, Jay's pregnant girlfriend; Delores, Jay's lonely, alcoholic mother with whom Willy has an affair. They take it like a communion wafer. As Iona's mother says, there are only three ways out: "the river, the tracks, the long winding road."
Iona Moon is filled with images of entrapment: bulls butting their dull heads into electric fences; cows wailing in snowy fields; dogs straining on tight leashes. Yet it is the heavy, bovine bodies of women where Thon finds her finest metaphor. While Iona's own body is restored to her, there was a time when her tiny hard breasts were "something separate from the girl, something that could be frightened and disappear."
by Bruce Smith
My Alexandria, Mark Doty's third book of poems, is a rich continuance of the stories of paradise, pageant, and fugitive grace found in the justly praised first two books. His preoccupations have remained the same: the lush world, its architecture and artifice, and the forms of remembering and inventing what Doty earlier calls "something storied." In My Alexandria the stories have become raddled with history and language and desire to form a brilliant fabric, a wild spun silk. This "shantung" (one of Doty's spirit words) is his metaphor for pattern and the creation of the poem the warp of diction, the weft of experience. This deft spinning is the most remarkable feature of his work and the allure of this new book. The great weavers and embroiderers Scheherazade, Penelope, Ariadne, and Arachne are his literary mothers. The poems are enchanting, slow and slant, stylish and conscious of style, and shot through with "brilliant bits" and blossom. These poems are interrupted narratives that ravel the lush textures of the world Keats's poetry of earth and tragedy loss and the insults to the body in the era of AIDS. The identifiably gay context of some poems is a thread to find our way in and out of the labyrinth a sensibility and tactic rather than an exclusionary politic.
"Night Ferry" is an indeterminate love poem/love story, both lyric and narrative, set "between two worlds." It begins:
We're launched into the darkness,The shimmering surface becomes "roughened . . . like the patterns of Italian bookpaper,/lustrous and promising." Doty's poems ride on the consciousness of their own making. He's aware of the mesh of the story; its illusory, watery skin (its "black moiré"); and the poem itself as vehicle for what's beyond (love? faith? some comfort?).
The narrativeI like the shifts and turns in the unjustified lines. I like the wit and the risk; consciousness moves idiosyncratically from self, to other, to the "good boat" with its "good smell of grease and kerosene." In between
There's no beautiful bindingThe liquid and buoyant line gives the feeling of being transported and held, of being "between two worlds." In the shuttling between lines as between shores or loves there is a startling energy here that is restrained in the passage, the process. He's less interested in the outcome than in the "sheen" and "glory" of the journey. In a poem from his first book Doty says: "Not the kingdom itself, where nothing happens/but the approach to the kingdom:/everything, the coming to love."
The first eight poems in the book are remarkable and "exhilarating" (another of Doty's bywords). There's more world here city streets, human traffic, nightclubs, and public gardens. And there's more Art here references to other works of art: Lowell, Wilde, Proust, Hart Crane, Cavafy, and Prendergast. I resisted the referential of the first few poems until I came to "Almost," a homage to the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. I'd like to quote the whole solo of the poem, its supple phrasing and gripping attack, but here's part:
you're going to wake up in any one of theThese poems are not frotteurs to the famous, accruing value by association, but deeply realized revisions with "all the sheen artifice is capable of." The art is "that which we know," in Eliot's phrase, and what enables us to enter these new locations, like languages and genders, is the courage and passion of their lesson. Like the mirror on the cathedral steps in the poem "Heaven," we are allowed to see the Virgin's golden face reversed. The world is reconstructed by Doty in marvelous ways. And there's an odd harmony between the "wonderful detail" of the city and the artifice (art) that finds its emblems in art's magnificent monuments and in the tawdry transvestite wigs, sequins, lipsynched songs.
"Chanteuse" and "Lament-Heaven" are Doty at his best a lavish surface and a troubled depth. I hope that readers, and not just readers of poetry, will add these poems to their private anthology of consciousness at the end of the century.