THE COWBOYS AND THE INDIANS

A WILDEAN ODYSSEY

Oscar Wilde weathers all the uncouthness that the Old West can throw at him in this bawdy, bewildering historical fantasia.
Notch’s tall tale opens in 1910, as two racist 10-year-olds in a Southern town offer rotgut liquor to an elderly African-American man, Erastus Greener, in exchange for stories of his youthful adventures in the Old West. He complies with the letter, if not the spirit, of their demand, by recounting a sprawling fable that reimagines the author Oscar Wilde’s real-life speaking tour through the American West as a slapstick picaresque. Stranded for months in Colorado in 1882 when his train breaks down, Wilde finds himself immured in the squalid mining town of Leadville, living in a saloon and rubbing shoulders with all manner of colorful ruffians. These include a man with Tourette’s syndrome whose uncontrollable bursts of profanity don’t disqualify him from becoming Wilde’s manservant; a derelict Native American man aptly named He-Who-Breaks-Wind; and a coarse buffalo hunter whose vicious, omnidirectional and sometimes quite funny insults make him Wilde’s main rhetorical foil. Then, feminist icon Susan B. Anthony comes into town by stagecoach; she’s a preachy, humorless woman who insists on being addressed by the gender-neutral title “Person Anthony,” and sets about rallying the town’s prostitutes to the cause of female suffrage. This may sound lively, as does a subplot about a psychotic outlaw dispensing Mormon gold, but what mainly happens in the book is a lot of windy dinner-table palaver. This usually pits Wilde’s subtle, ironic repartee (“America is a cosmopolitan land,” he says, upon seeing a Native American drinking in a saloon), which goes way over everyone’s head, against the cussing, farting and braying of the yokels and rogues around him. Occasionally, it lapses into earnest soapboxing about the injustices borne by women and gay men. Notch writes vigorous prose (“The Salt Lake City Kid pulled a revolver from his holster, cocked it, and emptied all six shots into the sign, grouping three inches across, except a single flyer that flew wild. He did not count those. Few shooters did”), and his vivid characters certainly have distinctive voices. But his gross-out humor is so overwrought that it grows tiresome long before the line “I pee pee in my teepee” surfaces. As a result, readers lacking the patience of Eustace’s 10-year-old audience may find it rough going.
A verbally boisterous fish-out-of-water satire that’s sometimes entertaining, but often grating.

Pub Date: April 24, 2014

ISBN: 978-1499151510

Page Count: 268

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 27, 2014

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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