Poet, memoirist and novelist Bathanti (Creative Writing/Appalachian State Univ.; Half of What I Say Is Meaningless, 2014, etc.) tells an expansive story in his newest work of fiction.
The book opens with the narrator, George, hiding out in Queen, “a small, but aspiring city, in the middle of North Carolina.” There, he meets Crow, a tormented young woman who works in a café. Their attachment anchors the present action of Bathanti’s novel, though he spends a great deal of time in the past as well—specifically, in Pittsburgh, where he traces the criminal entanglements (unwise bets, malevolent mobsters) that led to George’s, despite his bright-seeming future, lamming it in the South. This is the stuff of pulp, of course, and Bathanti populates his novel with seedy bookies, threatening criminals and dangerous women. But Bathanti wants to make art, too, circling a number of serious issues, including economic disparity, regional clashes, religion, etc. Unfortunately, his story—which lurches from noir to bildungsroman to romance to road novel—feels too hectic to investigate any of its themes fully. The writing itself doesn’t help. George is an overly stylized narrator, and a poetic voice bogs everything down. Consider this description of roadkill: “Dead possums and raccoons, even the occasional desiccated deer, lay at the shoulders, or gaping in dead bloody wonder on the blazing double yellow that bisects the flat eternal road to the sea.” Or consider this doozy, which describes (I think) a tornado: “the unholy caprice of that one mutant cloud, like placenta, its umbilici drooling down, vacuuming up the earth.” Such figurative language obfuscates the story rather than clarifying it. There are terrific scenes—particularly a moment of sudden, inexplicable brutality at a Middle Eastern restaurant—but the novel, as a whole, feels like a slog.
Overstuffed and overwritten.