"A challenging but altogether cutting-edge, first-rate magnum opus by an up-and-coming author."– Kirkus Reviews
A collection of poems about writing, ordering marijuana, and reevaluating one’s expectations.
The speaker in Akley’s (The Psalmist, 2017, etc.) works meditate on complications of daily life. The narrator’s complicated relationship with his ex-wife and their shared children reappears often, and Akley tends to favor description over projection, which gives the scenes a kind of emotional opacity. Plans to quit working for the U.S. Veterans Affairs office and travel are also a recurring motif, and after the fact, the author turns to reflect on that decision (a screen shot of a resignation email provides proof). A lot of Akley’s poems are about recursive worries about creative work, specifically regarding his ideas and writing practice. The poem’s speakers try to walk the line between drinking, smoking, and composing poetry with an authentic voice. It’s a style that fits neatly next to the late poet Charles Bukowski’s—grimy and to the point. (One poem even attempts to one-up Bukowski himself; apparently, even he’s too much of an aesthete.) The speakers’ swearing at Frédéric Chopin and admiration of David Foster Wallace are almost intriguing, and few books discuss both quantum mechanics and preparing beef jerky for one’s daughter’s breakfast. The pacing and motifs of most of the poems, however, are similar enough that they have a tendency to bleed together, although they are pulled back into relief by certain sharp phrases, such as “Sometimes I wish / my eyes were on a different face.” Later on, the poems are broken up by short narrative paragraphs and, in one case, by a full essay about the protagonist of Albert Camus’ absurdist 1956 novel The Fall. These sections give the impression that the book is organized more by chronology than by theme or style, although this choice is neither clear nor explained, which makes the overall goal of the book difficult to piece together.
Sparks of clear lines, dampened by too much repetition.
A sprawling novel detailing the life of a 20th-century blues musician.
Akley’s lengthy fiction debut tells the story of a blues musician named David Threnody, who was “born in an apartment above a pawn shop on 129 N 8th Street in East St. Louis, Illinois…in winter, the 28th of February 1918.” Akley uses a variety of techniques—including journal entries and a long stretch of prose structured as a stage play—to first outline the lives of David’s parents and then to tell David’s own life from his childhood to his slow, spotty entrance onto the music scene in New Orleans and its environs. “Remember laughter is a tool like anything else,” David’s mother writes. “It’s a tool for Hope.” Yet there’s barely any humor in this long book and virtually no hope, either. Instead, through the viewpoints of a handful of characters but always returning to center on David, Akley takes readers through the ups and downs of David’s life, his music, his problems with the law, and his struggles with drugs and alcohol. David’s morose and brooding nature governs the story, seen most directly in excerpts from his own journals: “No good habits come from idle time. Bodies just rot that way.” Through the long, complicated stories of David’s love life and tense family relationships, Akley shapes a narrative of a down-and-out bluesman who grows into a kind of hard-won wisdom. “He was kind of a preacher you know,” one character says of him. “And his songs were laments. Like it was all vanity to him. A striving after the wind.” Akley consistently displays great skill in both moving the story briskly along despite its great length and in controlling the tempo, sometimes speeding it up and peppering it with tragedies or sometimes slowing it down and filling it with memorable philosophical observations: “Truth is memory when you’re sad.” “It’s the present moment when you’re happy.” A sordid, off-tempo ending adds extra resonance to the story of David’s bleak but fascinating life.
An absorbing artist’s story with a similar structure but darker tone than Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961).
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.
A compilation of genre-spanning short works with behind-the-scenes style nonfictional interludes that chronicle an author’s struggle with drugs, debt and family.
This uniquely structured collection attempts to pull back the curtain on the writing process, using the author’s real-life accounts of working on the individual pieces while dealing with square jobs, family troubles, self-doubt and other demons. In Akley’s (Sweet Pea and the Bumblebee, 2007) world, the biggest monkey on his back is marijuana, along with all the hassles that come with the habit, and his dependency has lead him to as many interesting tales and inconveniences as his other obsession—writing—has. In between children’s stories, miniplays, poetry and prose come glimpses of the numerous hardships, locations and characters that have influenced these works, the collected accounts of a freelance lab technician just trying to make an honest living while publishing his stories and trying to score his next ounce. The book suggests a larger narrative will appear where fact meets fiction, but this ultimately fails, leaving the reader with disparate stories loosely connected by bits of memoir. The short pieces stand fine on their own— “Sweet Pea and the Bumblebee” and “The Candlestick,” both children’s tales, explore similar questions of identity but in different ways—while the bulk of novel’s poetry captures a muted sense of longing, even when just engaging in simple, fun observations. Of the prose, “Repentance” is the standout; replete with vivid imagery, it’s most notable for the subdued, nonjudgmental way it depicts personal interactions, featuring people struggling to make bad decisions that regrettably might be the best ones they can make. Themes like relevance, selfishness and self-interest reoccur throughout, even in the nonfiction passages, but like the book’s multiple religious musings and pop culture references, these feel like window dressings, adding little and rarely explored or expounded upon, just filling space, or in the case of the poems, metered time.
An adequate collection of short stories and poetry, but the author’s commentary doesn't connect the parts into a cohesive narrative.
An avant garde update of a classic Greek tragedy.
Akley’s new novel is a deeply ambitious project, 700 plus pages of experimental prose filled with allusions to the Bible, the Beatles, Marx, Nietzsche, Johnny Cash and the cool jazz of Miles Davis, but readers who stick with it will be amply rewarded. Although labyrinthine, it is also gratifying. Akley’s previous work includes a number of award-winning children’s books, but this project is decidedly adult. Lazarus is contemporary version of the Oedipus trilogy, Sophocles’ timeless epic about the benighted family of a man who kills his father and marries his mother. However, the novel is less a retelling than a refraction. Akley shines his ancient source through a prism and watches the colors spin and dance on a white wall, jumping between generations and growing family trees whose limbs are sometimes chopped with surprising speed, he delivers a tale as engrossing as it is complex. However, he manages this sprawling project with a steady hand, his deft prose is the thread that keeps his patchwork quilt from falling to pieces. The author experiments with numerous forms, piecing his story together with diary entries, e-mail correspondence, dramatic dialogue and, to great effect, screenplay. Each form is more adeptly handled than the last and such flexibility proves his skill.
A challenging but altogether cutting-edge, first-rate magnum opus by an up-and-coming author.
Young men drift through their 20s seeking connection and direction in these two novellas.
The first of two thematically linked novellas focuses on Solomon, a disaffected young man making a summer road trip to visit school friends. Solomon is crippled by uncertainty and ennui, and as he travels the eastern United States, he has uneventful encounters with other disaffected youth, pausing every once in a while to camp and make garbled, faux-philosophical observations about life. Not much of interest–to Solomon or the reader–happens on his journey. Instead, the narrative relies on several vignettes inserted throughout the story. Eventually it becomes clear that Solomon wrote the pieces about himself and his inability to connect with others, most notably his father. It’s a tired device but lends a complexity that’s absent from the second novella, The Altar of Silence, which is the story of three friends–boring John, wild Jim and brooding Ray. John narrates, but the story centers around Jim, who falls passionately in love with free-spirited Johanna. But Jim is immature and reckless, and Johanna turns to Ray for solace. The story is trite and the characters clichÃ©, but it’s even more problematic that the author made the dullest and least insightful character the narrator. Throughout both novellas the prose is unadorned and strives toward simply elegance, but mostly wallows in the mundane.
Muddled, dull and derivative.
A young girl’s dream takes her on a fantastical adventure.
In what is ostensibly verse, Akley tells of a little girl who has a dream–or perhaps a metaphorical adventure or spiritual awakening–about a gold candlestick. Determined to find the meaning behind it, she embarks on a quest, along the way meeting various preachy animals in different settings. It’s clear that lessons are supposedly being taught, but what exactly that wisdom entails is lost in text that is awkward, lengthy and clichÃ©d. Presented as prose despite the attempted verse, the story fails to generate interest. The accompanying illustrations are unpleasantly colored and amateurish; faces are distorted, and the pictures often deviate from the text. Readers will sense that the girl achieves her quest but will never understand its purpose. Akley claims the story has a basis in the Book of Revelations, but beyond the word â€œcross” and the possibility of an ever-present shepherd, no actual meaning–religious or secular–is decipherable.
Gibberish with meritless pictures. (Picture book. 5-7)
A new sprout questions the meaning of life.
Sweet Pea, a sprout unfurling on a sunny day, immediately questions who she is and why she exists, expressing distress at her confusion. A bumblebee happens along and spouts philosophy at Sweet Pea, supposedly exploring the meaning of life. Akley attempts verse, but most rhymes are poor, nonexistent or rarely scan, reading instead as prose without line breaks. But the deepest problem is that the bumblebee’s monologues are unintelligible. Cryptically smashing together bits of classical philosophy, Akley produces long-winded litanies devoid of meaning. Certain snippets may be rooted in real discourse but are unfathomable. The unattractive, cereal box style illustrations have googly eyes and no depth. And after all that philosophical nonsense, the answer to Sweet Pea’s question is painfully sacrificial: The meaning of her life is to be a cut flower in a vase after she ages and dies, to be a gift for someone else.
Akley aims at complexity, but achieves incoherence. (Picture book. 5-7)
Characters consider their lives and philosophically reflect in this novel, which includes a short screenplay.
“Catadoupe” is the French word for waterfall—a title that captures the torrential effect of this novel’s verbiage as well as its obscurity. The various plot strands of this rambling work, which interlace and reform, include stories involving a medical lab technician; a husband and wife; a father and two daughters; drugs, especially marijuana; a Prohibition-era gangster; a cat, or two cats, or Schrödinger’s cat; people who don’t neuter their pets, resulting in “too many litters”; a woman who shoots her boyfriend’s dog in the face; golf, God, prayer, love, the past, the darknet, bitcoin, a suicide attempt, a psychiatric hospital, and a funeral. Several characters are writers, and even a version of Akley (The Candlestick, 2013, etc.) himself appears in emails to a literary agent, in which he says that he wants to retell the story of Oedipus. (Oedipus himself isn’t noticeably present here, but one section, in screenplay form, offers a character called Electra von Turnipseed.) The Akley character considers his own story so far, with its loose ends, and affirms it: “Yes I would be passion’s fool yes I will play the game or the game will play me yes…yes there are no mistakes no loose ends.” Some readers may enjoy the variety of literary forms here, including text messages and the aforementioned screenplay. But if this all sounds hard to follow, that’s because it is, and it’s not made easier by the author’s penchant for largely unpunctuated run-on sentences that sometimes go for more than a page. The book’s ruminations, such as “sometimes forgetting while you’re finding that beauty something beautiful is going on somewhere else,” seldom have force, as they’re hard to pick out of the confusion. Also, his characters’ deep thoughts all seem linked to a fairly standard lineup of hipster icons (Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Philip K. Dick, Charles Bukowski) and include the standard insight: “it all goes back to when your parents or the guardians of your childhood told you No.”
An incoherent work that may be particularly unpleasant for animal lovers.