The lives of three barflies intertwine in Akley’s (Crossroads from Damascus, 2011, etc.) latest novel.
Not nearly as romantic as its Casablanca namesake, Akley’s eponymous St. Louis dive bar is a sousing place for poignant losers with vague, purposeless anecdotes to tell. Among the regulars are Angela, a bartender whose heart was broken by her lover’s suicide; Jim, a man who suffered brain damage when he crashed his car after a girlfriend slipped him a dose of Percocet; and Sam, a struggling writer whose troubled life—marital problems, suicide attempts—forms the central thread in a tangle of intersecting character sketches. Framed by a bar-back mirror that comments on the people reflected in it, the storyline drifts among the interchangeable first-person broodings of the characters, gradually filling in details of their lives and snagging occasionally on desultory conversations and japes. Sprinkled in are some of Sam’s writings, including lyric poems—“bird flower come home! / and rest inside the holes / of my wood”—and a children’s story, as well as a random news article about homelessness in post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s hard to tell what is happening to whom in this braided, rambling picaresque, but that hardly matters since the uninvolving narrative mainly serves as a peg on which to hang hazy, abstract reflections on the meaning of life, a single paragraph of which can go on for 16 pages. Akley has a good feel for bar-room atmospherics and dialogue, but, unfortunately, the unfocused booziness spills over into his authorial voice. His stammering, sentimental pensées—“What you do doesn’t matter, and your reaction to this becomes either one of hope or despair, hope or despair in what happens after, after your life and what you’ve done with it”—go on endlessly; reading them feels like being trapped with a long-winded tavern philosopher.Blowsy, tiresome rumination.