Gapinski’s (Messiah Tortoise, 2018) surrealist novella doles out dark comedy, visceral detail, and deft commentary in equal measure.
Our main character’s bus commute takes her between work and a home life she’d rather not discuss, accompanied by the same sad, stained, frequently off-putting fellow passengers. When the bus’s marquee reads “Out of Service,” she finds herself taken not to her menial job behind a deli butcher’s counter but a barren shantytown in a desert wilderness. Despite seemingly hopeless circumstances, she remains determined to leave this place even as her butchery skills earn her a certain cachet in a town that survives on rat meat, beetles, and the dead. Her refusal to join one of the town’s cultlike factions makes her an object of fascination. In a world where the bus driver is armed and dangerous and only drops off new arrivals or drives pickups in a circle, there’s something heroic in her persistence as well as that of the townsfolk. Their lives are ugly, crude, and filthy, but they’ve still carved a society out of the will to survive and from every scrap that comes in on the bus, like using makeup as an accelerant for a fire barrel. Gapinski’s matter-of-fact prose works perfectly here, the straight-faced descriptions of death and cannibalism lending a comic tinge to the macabre proceedings: “Bus-Driver opens the door and pushes out the body. It’s got a terrible smell, like skunk and shit mixed with a hint of blood.” The story only heightens this dissonance with naturalistic dialogue, forcing readers to question what “normal” is when credit cards and other modern symbols of power and prosperity lose their meanings. Finally, for all the gore and horror, this isn’t The Road or Mad Max or any such story of the barbaric. The threatening aspects of the denizens of Out of Service seemingly stem from their extreme poverty and the narrator’s refusal to participate in their social order, not from any malice. Thus the novella poses questions of why these people have been thrust into these hellish circumstances, how they can escape them, and ultimately how different their lives really are from our own.
Brilliant and brutal; a thrilling story surrounding complex, nuanced considerations of nihilism, optimism, and our own existential reality.
Reed’s debut novel explores how the disruptions of history affect the interconnected lives of several women in communist Czechoslovakia.
In August 1968, during a Soviet invasion, a baby girl is left outside a peasant woman’s house in Czechoslovakia, the name “Zofie” embroidered on her blanket. The woman, Uršula, takes her in. When Zofie is 11, a Communist Party apparatchik notes her intelligence, offers to help her learn German, and lends her books, which are transformative. Zofie experiences familial warmth for the first time when she’s invited to her classmate Katarina Vacek’s summer cottage, where she spends three summers. Later educated in Prague, Zofie immerses herself in its culture, becoming a translator for the education ministry, which becomes less subject to censorship as communism loses its grip. Next, Uršula tells her brief story: She didn’t speak until she was 8—her muteness a kind of spell that a circus dwarf breaks by asking her name and age. The next section tells the heartbreaking tale of Zofie’s mother, Maria, who’s separated from her baby daughter by the invasion. Now married and living in Wales with her son, Maria’s inquiries regarding Zofie’s location have led to nothing, and she must live with sorrow, regret, and uncertainty. The novel then takes up Zofie’s story again, as well as that of Nataša, Katarina’s orphaned daughter, whom Zofie takes in; painting helps Nataša heal her broken memories. Throughout this novel, Reed renders her characters’ different first-person points of view with the toughness and delicacy of a dancer en pointe whose grace belies a foundation of pain. Although tragedy runs through the broken mother-daughter relationships, each character manages to find meaning and beauty in the world through art. Even Uršula, whose words are so often trapped within herself, vividly remembers making a mobile out of string, a dead butterfly, feathers, and other bits and pieces. Not that art is easy; Zofie, for example, risks much when working on samizdat (banned literature), and it’s photography that takes Maria out of the country at a crucial time. Reed handles such ironies with intelligence and skill in this fine debut.
The past is never really past in Silman’s (Boundaries, 2015, etc.) latest novel, in which a man thinks back to his childhood in World War II–era Berlin.
It’s 1989, and the Berlin Wall has just come down. This awakens traumatic memories in Paul Bertram (ne Berger), who was a Jewish child in Berlin and escaped with his family to Sweden and then to America. He asks his ex-wife, Eve, to accompany him back to the German capital. They’d been married for 23 years and had three kids before Paul became distant and unfaithful. Paul has always been immensely talented, charming, and successful; everybody loved him—except Paul. Now he hopes for some sort of expiation in Germany, and surprisingly, Eve agrees to go with him. The Jewish Berger family had lived in Berlin for generations; they were successful and respected jewelers. In the 1930s, they thought that Adolf Hitler’s evil regime would pass. Later, their protector was Paul’s grandfather Gunther Berger’s chief designer, a gentile named Hjalmar Friedmann. The Friedmann family moves into the Bergers’ large house to disguise the Jewish family’s presence there. It gradually becomes, in effect, the Friedmanns’ house, as the Bergers have to hide in the attic. After Hjalmar dies in 1944, the Bergers make another long, dangerous trek. In this work, Silman shows herself to be an accomplished and experienced writer. The novel’s pacing is almost excruciatingly slow, but that’s what this study demands, as it allows the author to dig deeply into Paul’s pain and his relationship with Eve. Similarly, the elder Paul seems almost too good to be true, but that, too, is necessary so that readers can understand his suffering—his later success didn’t heal his wounds as he’d hoped it would. Over the course of the story, Paul comes to terms with his heritage, the awful things that he has done, and what has been done to him.
A harrowing story that readers will find compelling to the very end.
In Snodgrass’ (Kitchen Things, 2013, etc.) novel, a complex construction project teeters on the brink of failure, pitting workers against each other.
Furnass is an economically ailing mill town in southwestern Pennsylvania with some hope that a new high-rise building project will revitalize the area. However, Jack Crawford, the cantankerous job site superintendent, is ordered by his superiors at Drake Construction to delay the pouring of concrete columns. The company hasn’t received payment for months, partly the result of ballooning costs and partly due to the collapse of the bank responsible for the project’s funding. The architect, Vince Nicholson, whose thoughts grandiosely toggle between the ideas of architects Mies and Le Corbusier, desperately tries to save a project that’s threatened by his own hubris. Meanwhile, Jack conducts an extramarital affair with Pamela,a nurse who performs nude dances before her apartment window, to the delight of rapt construction workers nearby. Jack inexplicably introduces Pamela to workman Bill van Hayden, also a married man, and they begin a torrid affair of their own. Bill becomes increasingly infatuated with Pamela and tells Jack of his intention to leave his wife for her; the resulting tension evolves into open animosity. Snodgrass displays virtuosic skill in relating the technical nuances of building construction. However, the chief strength of the book is how he profoundly captures his complex characters, who are each wounded in some ineradicable way. He even deeply develops supporting players, such as Gregg Przybysz, a newly minted building inspector trying to prove that he’s up to the task. The prose is poetically ambitious and sometimes wildly unrestrained, which is well-suited to the pervasive sense of chaos and urgency: “…the bells of the Church of the Holy Innocents, the bells of the Angelus, ring out over the little town, ring out over the layers of rooftops to the hills on the other side of the river and back again.” The pace is unhurried but inexorable, a relentless march toward a shocking conclusion. This is a sinewy first installment in a planned trilogy—artistically unflinching and morally unsentimental.
In Sundt’s (My Helsingfors: Andreas Larsson Bengstrom, 2014) Depression-era story, an adult orphan takes care of a younger one, and together, they take a trip to delve into their pasts.
Eleven-year-old John Culbertson’s father dies of a heart attack on their bleak farm in southern Illinois. Traumatized, the boy, who’s known as “Cully,” blindly and aimlessly hits the road. Along the way, Gunnar Anderson, known to all simply as “Doc,” stops his car and convinces the lad to come with him. Before long, they’re acting like father and son. Doc is a lonely widower, and Cully fills a void in his heart. Thirty years ago, when he was a child, Doc was sent west on an “orphan train”—part of a movement that aimed to relocate orphans in Eastern cities to Midwestern foster homes—and by hard work, he eventually got a college education and became a veterinarian. He has virtually no memory of his life before he was put on the train. Cully’s mother, Anna, left her husband and son and returned to her Connecticut hometown years ago. Now, she writes a long letter to both of them—not knowing that her husband’s dead. It contains a mysterious reference to the long-ago disappearance of her youngest brother, Augustus Jared. Doc sees Cully’s photo of Anna and begins to fall in love with her—but for various reasons, he soon begins to suspect that he might, in fact, be her long-lost brother. Fatefully, he says to Cully, “I think we need to go find your mother.” They finally track her down, and, of course, the boy is overjoyed at the reunion; meanwhile, Doc wrestles with his feelings while trying to discover the truth about his past.
Sundt is a very impressive writer, and he doesn’t miss a step as he evokes the story’s time and place with vivid descriptions. Doc, in particular, is a wonderful creation who’s worth the price of admission all by himself; his care for Cully is simple and strong, and he also shows deep sensitivity. The book is structured as the two complementary diaries of Doc and Cully, and as a result, the text approaches metafiction at times, as when Doc writes, “There are things that happen beyond all intention and planning….If it were in a book, the reader would scoff at it.” Often, Doc’s and Cully’s entries will observe the same turn of events from their very different perspectives—Doc with maturity, and Cully with precocity. The narrative is bookended by commentaries by Augustus Strong II, Cully’s son, writing in the present day. It’s revealed that Augustus is a veterinarian—just like Doc was. The final mystery involves the Strong family graveyard, but Sundt has Augustus Strong II provide the envoi: “Some mysteries are not meant to be solved.” That said, the climax turns out to be a real shocker, leaving readers to ponder a lack of resolution.
A cleverly plotted and deeply moving work that will likely have readers recommending it to their friends.
A young American woman has to choose between her Cuban lover—the father of her child—and the older rico she has married. And in novelist Thorndike’s (Anna Delaney’s Child, 2011, etc.) telling, this fictionalized history plays out against the early years of the Cuban revolution.
Clare Miller, professional photographer, meets Camilo Cienfuegos at a photo shoot at the Waldorf Astoria where he is a line cook. They fall in love; she gets pregnant; he gets deported and joins Fidel Castro’s revolution. In fact, he becomes one of Fidel’s top lieutenants. Meanwhile, Clare travels to Cuba with her daughter, Alameda, hoping to find Camilo, though she fears that he is dead. She meets Domingo Beltran, a widower who offers her work as a photographer. He is a good man, and Clare marries him, if only to give Ala a father. But of course Camilo isn’t dead, and very shortly he arrives in Havana as one of the conquering barbudos (bearded ones). Clare leaves Domingo. Camilo does love her, and Ala may accept him in time, but he is also deeply loyal to Fidel and caught up in the madness of the day. On a flight to the eastern provinces to bring an old comrade to “justice,” his plane disappears. Shortly thereafter, Domingo quits Cuba for Miami. Then the new regime forces Clare and Ala into exile. The historical Camilo Cienfuegos and his pilot were in fact never found. But this is fiction, and he survives. Domingo surfaces again…and we will leave it at that. Thorndike is a talented, experienced writer, and Clare and Camilo especially are fully developed, attractive characters. The dynamic between Camilo and Fidel is fascinating. Camilo is a joyous revolutionary and wants a revolution that really does fulfill its promises to the poor and dispossessed. Fidel, on the other hand, is a dangerous ideologue whose first directive is to eliminate perceived threats. (It’s very likely that the crucial plane crash was no accident at all.)
A highly recommended rendering of a love affair and mysterious slice of Cuban history.
A debut novel of young love, ’90s-style grunge, and teenage angst.
When Danny first sees Mary, she’s running away from her ex-boyfriend Tanner into the back room of the New Jersey grocery store where she works—screaming at the top of her lungs, imploring him to leave her alone. Mary’s loud outburst sets the tone for the rest of the novel, which follows the two teenagers’ eclectic, unusual relationship. The book is structured in acts, letting the momentum build, as it would in a play, until the final section. More specifically, the book is structured using alternating perspectives; as it oscillates between Danny’s and Mary’s points of view, it offers a complete, authentic, and objective narration. Danny is a fairly typical 17-year-old high schooler who loves music (though only music with lyrics, preferably from decades that preceded his birth), smells good, is a talented guitarist, and works at a car wash across the street from the grocery store where Mary works. When he meets her, he’s awestruck but a bit wary: “When my too dry lips peeled apart, I realized I had become that guy. Totally forgetting that this amazingly hot girl was just involved in a shouting match about ten seconds prior to my being captivated by her hotness.” Still, Danny musters the courage to ask her out—but it takes a little while. Mary, on the other hand, doesn’t come off as the most approachable girl for a boy like Danny. She’s an irritable 17-year-old who goes out to bars with her girlfriends, surrounds herself with people who call Danny a “faggot,” and struggles with a physically and verbally abusive father. The duo is an unlikely match—another case of opposites attracting.
Debut author Wakil fills the text with moments of pure teenage bliss in which readers will recognize their younger selves experiencing the excitement of love for the very first time. Similar to works like Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 debut novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, this book is a testament to the power of conviction, the results of perseverance, and a case study of small-town millennials from varying economic backgrounds. The author has a punchy, irreverent writing style: “So, as we drove through the swampy and winding road, where the crickets were louder than the music Danny played, my head fell back between the headrest and the door, and I let the wind blow back my hair.” With it, he effectively creates a narrative environment in which anything can happen, from stealing a boss’s Porsche to chasing down bullies on the freeway to helping friends cope with debilitating bouts of depression to navigating the changing functions of parent-child relationships. Danny and Mary are captivating, frustrating, and completely imperfect characters that are very much evocative of the current sociocultural climate. They also seem like products of the 1990s, and they drive into adulthood with familiar teenage uncertainties and doubts. Readers will willingly surrender themselves to this book and gain much from it.