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DRIFTWOOD: STORIES FROM THE MARGARITA ROAD

Truly wonderful and moving tales; the author is a writer to watch.

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This debut collection of short stories features an exotic location populated by believable people.

Paradise Beach is a fictional Mexican town on the Riviera Maya in Quintana Roo, somewhere between Cancún and Tulum. (Head owned a bar and hotel for a decade in Playa del Carmen.) But Paradise Beach is more than a Jimmy Buffett cliché. The atmosphere is real, and certainly the characters and events are inspired by the author’s own sojourn in Mexico—how close they are to the truth doesn’t matter. These are discrete vignettes (though characters sometimes reappear), each prefaced by a short reflection on what one is about to read. The first tale sets the scene with a biographical sketch of Poppa (who appears to be Head’s alter ego). He is the classic expatriate, the footloose drifter who finally landed on this largely unspoiled shore—“living the dream,” in that awful cliché. Some stories are humorous; some are poignant; some defy description. Poppa is sometimes a main actor in these tales but more often a bemused bystander, counselor, or father figure. He holds the book and, it occasionally seems, Paradise Beach together. In a setting such as this, it is hard to avoid clichés, so the work does have ugly American tourists usually staying at the expensive, antiseptic resorts that are becoming more and more common. They venture next door to Paradise Beach and gripe because things do not perfectly match what the travel agent promised. There are also “Margaritaville”-type reflections and paeans to life off the middle-class, money-grubbing grid. While such things come with this idyllic territory, Head keeps them mostly in check.

The author is at his best with tales that may be rooted in the local milieu but are really universal. People fall in love just as often in Albuquerque as in Paradise Beach. The difference—and it is a crucial one—is that Albuquerque is not Edenic, not a place one escapes to and then is forced to take stock of one’s life. This is the moral fulcrum of the finest of the stories, as when Poppa and Lynn Timmons fall in love or when Sadie and Roy break up. Perhaps the strangest tale (“The Old Man in the Sea”) stars not a human character but an old black grouper (seen through Poppa’s eyes). It is a very touching rumination on what this sea creature has seen and suffered in his—starting out as a her—30 years offshore. While the collection offers a bunch of familiar characters, the strongest ones are fully fleshed out, not cardboard cutouts. All stories must end, and the end comes for Paradise Beach in the form of a monster hurricane, Bad-Ass Bertha, that all but levels the little town. Poppa realizes that it would be pointless to try to rebuild his bar. In the end, he and his old friend Chaz sit on the beach in the dark. Chaz, using the allegory of a bullfight and the exhausted beast to discuss the concept of querencia, explains why people like himself and Poppa should move on. Indeed, there is, almost literally, no Paradise Beach anymore. And with that, readers will realize that Paradise Beach is no more real than Macondo or Prospero’s enchanted isle.

Truly wonderful and moving tales; the author is a writer to watch.

Pub Date: Oct. 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-73527-810-0

Page Count: 273

Publisher: Luna Blue Books

Review Posted Online: Aug. 31, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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JAMES

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as told from the perspective of a more resourceful and contemplative Jim than the one you remember.

This isn’t the first novel to reimagine Twain’s 1885 masterpiece, but the audacious and prolific Everett dives into the very heart of Twain’s epochal odyssey, shifting the central viewpoint from that of the unschooled, often credulous, but basically good-hearted Huck to the more enigmatic and heroic Jim, the Black slave with whom the boy escapes via raft on the Mississippi River. As in the original, the threat of Jim’s being sold “down the river” and separated from his wife and daughter compels him to run away while figuring out what to do next. He's soon joined by Huck, who has faked his own death to get away from an abusive father, ramping up Jim’s panic. “Huck was supposedly murdered and I’d just run away,” Jim thinks. “Who did I think they would suspect of the heinous crime?” That Jim can, as he puts it, “[do] the math” on his predicament suggests how different Everett’s version is from Twain’s. First and foremost, there's the matter of the Black dialect Twain used to depict the speech of Jim and other Black characters—which, for many contemporary readers, hinders their enjoyment of his novel. In Everett’s telling, the dialect is a put-on, a manner of concealment, and a tactic for survival. “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” Jim explains. He also discloses that, in violation of custom and law, he learned to read the books in Judge Thatcher’s library, including Voltaire and John Locke, both of whom, in dreams and delirium, Jim finds himself debating about human rights and his own humanity. With and without Huck, Jim undergoes dangerous tribulations and hairbreadth escapes in an antebellum wilderness that’s much grimmer and bloodier than Twain’s. There’s also a revelation toward the end that, however stunning to devoted readers of the original, makes perfect sense.

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Pub Date: March 19, 2024

ISBN: 9780385550369

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2024

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DEMON COPPERHEAD

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

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Inspired by David Copperfield, Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.

It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-06-325-1922

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022

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