Special Fiction Review Supplement

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Artwork by Gene McCormickI expect this to be a once-only deal.  I find fiction reviewing both difficult and time consuming so I would prefer not to encourage further submissions for review.  That said, I love to read fiction and all of these books had special qualities which made them worth the effort.

Donna Mack, Whispered Secrets, Whispered Prayers, Missing Socks and Honeybees Press. Available on Amazon: $12.95 paper, Kindle edition Available @ $9.99, 294 pages, 2013.

The time is 1947, the place, rural North Dakota, but despite the understanding this is our own country, in the not-so-distant past, it might as well be a completely alien land.  The people are destitute and desperate; tenant farmers with nothing to look forward to except more of the same. The land is unforgiving and the owner heartless. The neighbors are in the same situation you are, and an eighth grade diploma is considered advanced education. There’s no electricity and leaving home for a better life is inconceivable; once born to the land, you are wed to the land, that is, if they don’t take it away from you.

The book begins on an ominous note, Margaret is pregnant and the part mid-wife, part seer knows something is drastically wrong with this baby; not only is it a girl but it will be damaged.  Margaret’s husband Urs, is father to only one of her three children, a girl, Annie. The elder children are by Margaret’s first husband, conceived in a love match, that ended tragically when that man, Lars, committed suicide when the Socialist reforms he championed failed, and all the farms in the area went under and were repossessed.  Just the idea of a Socialist reform in North Dakota reinforces the alien, Faulknerian insularity, of the place, currently planted with an inappropriate crop.  In fact, the characters are aliens in a very real way; Russian/ German immigrants, second and third generations removed from the home, hoping the fulfill the adage of prosperity after the  two generations of death and want that preceded it.

Urs  is a practical but unimaginative. He is unfeeling and  severely physically damaged but still capable worker dreams of a better life as a farm owner with a son to help him achieve it. Despite the loss of one hand in a childhood accident, Urs has the strength of a whole man, lives to work, and sees the whole world, and everything in it, in terms of that work.  Margaret’s only son,  Danny, is of an age, 13, where he can contribute and work as a man, is farmed out for a fee and proves himself a capable hand.  He is, however, less than content with his assigned lot as little more than a slave to be used and worked by his step-father until he becomes exactly like him.  Danny is a modern child in that he excels at school, is the prized pupil of eighth grade. His unusual, almost unnatural to the time and place, nascent intellectual interests, are nurtured by the beautiful school teacher, Juanita, exotic wife of the Dickensian, physically deformed Owner,  Humpy Chris. It becomes clear that her marriage to Chris is a form of masochistic self-denial. A chance acquaintance with a female teacher on a train, awakens her to the possibilities beyond the farm land. Before long her interest in Danny extends beyond the intellectual, as does his in her.  This potentially tawdry affair is not lingered over unnecessarily, or exploited whatsoever, but becomes symptomatic of all the aspirations, dreams and misalliances in the lives of the characters. The only character who seems immune to this kind of hopeless, self-defeating narrative is, six year old Annie; part visionary, part angel of mercy. 
How you view the resolution to these many, seemingly irresolvable, conflicts, will be determined as much by the individual reader’s world view, as the authors.  Those who lean toward the Beckett, “I can’t go on, I go on,” school are likely to be disappointed, though, I expect, an equal amount of readers will find  it highly satisfactory.

Even at its bleakest, the novel is compelling, as much for the humanity of the well-drawn characters, as to the believability of their predicament.  A cynical reader might point to the physical deformity of Humpy Chris as a novelistic cliché : you know he’s a bad guy because he’s ugly outside and in, but that would be unfair to the author, who knows that character can be determined by the house it lives in.  Others my say Margaret seems so old barely in her thirties and Danny a man in his early teen ; the world as it was then, 30 was middle aged and early teenage was fully grown.  This is indeed an alien world, just like our own.

Peter Magliocco, Splanx, Cosmic Egg Books (UK). Books are available through their online catalog.  Publisher is an imprint of  www.johnhuntpublishing.com, 144 pages, March 2014,  13. 95 USA. 

I’m not sure if the author intended his book to be read this way, but I felt as if I were watching a kind of spliced together, inner movie.  What I mean by this is, there seemed to be bits and pieces of various genre: noir, science fiction, horror, works of Art, novels and, yes, movies, superimposed upon each other in rapid succession.  The nearest cinematic equivalent I can think of was Lars von Trier’s “Elements of Crime” which visually quoted from dozens of places, but ultimately created a unique, arresting, highly individual work of Art.

In cinematic terms, the opening of Splanx has the quality of a Tarkovsky movie remake, “Solaris”, where George Clooney is peering out of a window at the rain. The camera focuses on the downpour, and the terminally depressed face of the man, who we learn is an astronaut, headed to a space station orbiting the large, strange new planet, Solaris. The mood is set in one shot.

There may be no rain in Splanx,  but the mood is set in a similar tone.  Carlton Resi, an alcoholic, emotionally damaged, paranormal investigator, is in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, investigating the death of a radical female poet/activist/ sex industry worker, Laira McKinney.  The feeling, as we read, is much like a standard black and white potboiler from the fifties set in the future as the P.I. (get it?) seeks to unravel the mystery of the death and to liberate the spirit of Laira, which remains trapped in the murder room. 

As the details of an alien war emerge, a new species of mutant creatures has been created and a dark conspiracy between the aliens and Nazis during World War II are revealed( a not altogether fanciful plot twist given the wealth of material extant which posits similar connections). Here the book, more or less, lets the noir elements go and slips into the realm of  straight, hard science fiction of the type made popular by classic authors such as Arthur C. Clarke.

 Continuing my cinematic reading, Resi’s quest for the truth in  Amsterdam becomes much like the guide, the Stalker in a another Tarkovsky movie of that name, where a man takes searchers into a bizarre land contaminated by radioactivity where all the rules of physics no longer completely apply. The Zone, as it is known (“Stalker” is based on a novel, Roadside Picnic, by the Strugatsky’s Brothers.) is a kind of limbo/purgatorial place not quite earth but not quite hell. Amsterdam might be the current civilization’s nearest equivalent. Certainly the Amsterdam depicted by Magliocco is a forbidding place, morally corrupt and physically decayed.  The deeply flawed protagonist must navigate the treacherous landscape toward the inevitable confrontation with the deformed antagonist, part alien, part machine, part degenerate.

By book’s end, I found myself back in “Solaris”, as the author raises questions about the nature of humanity: what is alien anyway? what is a human being? how are they different? are they?  and, spirituality, what is the guiding principle behind it all? These are all valid, intriguing questions and the essential stuff of all good quest books.

Another classic sci fi guru, Philip K. Dick, a man not immune to humor in his books, would find Splanx of interest, as Peter appears to not be entirely serious about any of his many stylistic machinations.  Once Magliocco introduces the Stanislaus Lem server robot, it became completely clear, that he is using the novel to make fun of the genres he is working in.  Lem, to those who don’t know him, was a Polish novelist, short listed for the Nobel Prize, denied it only because of the field he was working in, was a writer who could aptly be described as the “Nabokov of  speculative fiction.” His books were often alternatively outrageously amusing, structurally difficult and deeply philosophical, as his Kafkaesque/ Pynchonesque, short  novel  “Memoirs in a Bathtub” shows. He is also the author of “Solaris”, which the classic Tarkovksy movie is based on and the intriguing Soderbergh remake and no doubt lent insight to the author of Splanx.

So what is a Splanx anyway? Early on, the author describes Splanx as, “a miraculous cyber tablet casting a thousand suns” A kind of uber machine whose possession could give the owner ultimate power.  The publisher prefers to call it, SPLANX - the ultimate electronic tablet of the space-oriented future, where humanity becomes one with a god-power beyond belief... 

Any more hints would be telling.

A.D. Winans, In the Pink, Pedestrian Press, 1727 10th Street, Oakland CA 94607. $15 ppd, 152 pages,  2014.

The subject is sex.  Down and dirty and in your face, literally. Strictly speaking, these stories are neither puerile nor pornographic, but they are most definitely realistic and explicit.  If that bothers you read some safe Lit Fict., culled from the mass market title, if it doesn’t well, hang on for ride.

The first couple of stories are coming of age, first sexual experience varietals, with a humorous edge.  Think John Fante rather than Bukowski, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to think Bukowski later on. The stories become grittier once the narrator heads for Panama in the service, and winds up on the streets of San Francisco afterwards.  The writing is crisp, fluid, and self-contained as the author takes you into bordellos, bar rooms and bedrooms with a touch of Hemingway thrown in for stylistic grace. If the reader is looking for sweeping panoramic fiction this is not to place to find it, but if the reader is looking for the expression of the self in all his naturalistic glory as in, say, Henry Miller, Winans has some stories for you.

All these pieces but two have the feeling on autobiography to them which is to say, a strong narratives voice, readily identifiable and reliably consistent.  There are no real value judgments, moral pronouncements or pretentions: the author presents you with a narrative and you take it as it comes or not.  The two exceptions would be the “Night of the Living Dildo”, originally published in infamous, radical publication, the Berkeley Barb, and the final piece, “Straws of Sanity”.  These would be the two stories I liked least: the last for its brutality, though the violence is an obvious anti-fascist political statement, and the other, for its “magic realism”, though it’s intent is satiric, written as a parody of Bukowski’s equally as infamous story, “Six Inches.” Both of these stories seemed tonally out of place with the rest of the collection, especially the last one which overtly expresses a point of view using characters to make a point rather than as a piece that develops organically through the actions of the people involved.

For those who find sexual perversity, whatever that might be, offensive, be warned there are scenes of bondage, sexual humiliation, and extreme fornication between consenting adults.   It would be senseless to deny these kinds of activities are not prevalent or widespread as moralists would have us believe.  Readers who think be people engaged in the sexual worker trade are all ignorant degenerates might be surprised that not only are there articulate people in the Life, but people who have lived and continue to live, productive existences well outside that life.  Check out Whip Smart by Melissa Febos, for starters, or Stephen Elliott’s highly popular blog, The Daily Rumpus, plus his books and Indie movies, for confirmation of life after The Life.  In the meantime, read Winans book, In the Pink, though, alas, the notorious, censored cover edition, is no doubt sold out. 

Stephanie Dickinson, Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, New Michigan Press.
                , Port Authority Orchids, Rain Mountain Press.          


Perhaps the best way to describe Heat, this short, incisive, sly little book, is as a novella in the form of a series of interviews, though the publisher lists it as an essay. Unless Stephanie has discovered a heretofore unknown method of time travel, this is clearly a work of fiction given it was written some thirty years after the death of the subject. No doubt the author has studied the biographical work on the troubled actress, originally discovered in a talent search for an Otto Preminger remake of Joan of Arc from some ten thousand odd candidates. The result was a movie of dubious distinction but a career was launched.

Despite some credible performances in subsequent movies as “Bonjour Tristesse” and “Lilith”, it was the ultra cool, debut film of avant garde director Jean Luc Godard, “Breathless” where Seberg reached the pinnacle of her career.  Never again would she be so beautiful, so perfect in a role and she was barely into her twenties. Seberg lived into her 40’s, dying under never-fully-explained, mysterious circumstances; her body was found in  a car on a Paris street nearly two weeks after she died. Her involvement with the Black Panthers, physically and financially, among other radical causes, may have been a contributing factor, though suicide is often regarded as her cause of death.

Dickinson uses the trajectory of her life as the basis of a probing interview sessions that gradually becomes less and less distinguishable between subject and interviewer.  As the factual elements become enmeshed with those of the interviewers, a compelling portrait, a collage of personality emerges that leaves the reader, well, for lack of a better phrase, breathless.

Port Authority Orchids is not your ordinary coming of age saga of a young girl in the City for many reasons, not the least of which Stephanie Dickinson is no ordinary writer.  Every chapter has wonderfully wrought sentences, images that leap from the page with the surety of a poet working a prose form. Her main character, Dalloway, is not to be confused with the Virginia Woolf character, though you could confuse them if you wanted to as both their daily lives are totally out of balance. Woolf would never recognize the details in this novel, but she might recognize the confusion of an extreme upbringing.  The years between thirteen and nineteen are the adult formative one and Dickinson fills in all the sordid details with outrageous humor and sensitivity.

If you think you have had it bad growing up, consider this: Dalloway’s beloved dad, a gorgeous man as she describes him, as others have described him, wants to be a woman in the worst way and is actively engaged in all the treatments to become one. Her mother is aloof, barely notices her daughter, and is more interested in her new, sordid sexual relationship (in Dalloway’s opinion) with the odious friend of dad’s, a transvestite apparel salesman.  Dalloway’s grandmother is an uber rich, narcissist with more face and body lifts than Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers combined.  Her best friend is a stunningly beautiful Russian girl with one glass eye who all the boys, including ones Dalloway is attracted to but would never admit to liking, even to herself, desire.  Surprised Dalloway is depressed, perpetually sulky and disagreeable?  Will there be a measure of happiness in Dalloway’s terminally screwed up life?  I guess you’ll have to read this wonderful, short novel to find out.

Artwork by Gene McCormick