book reviews

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews

Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou

Waveland by Frederick Barthelme

Index of Book Reviews Issues 50+

Index of Book Reviews Issues 1-50



bookcoverBroken Glass
Alain Mabanckou
translated by Helen Stevenson
Serpent’s Tail, U.K., 2009

Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou (African Psycho) delivers one of the most entertaining reads of the year in this string of stories which pull together to form a novel of sorts.  Our narrator is Broken Glass, a regular at the local, run-down bar, Credit Gone West.   As he says:

            let’s say the boss of the bar Credit Gone West gave me this notebook to fill,
            he’s convinced that I—Broken Glass—can turn out a book, because one day,
            for a laugh, I told him about this famous writer who drank like a fish, and had
            to be picked up off the street when he got drunk, which shows you never joke
            with the boss, he takes everything literally, when he gave me this notebook, he
            said from the start it was only for him, no one else would read it, and I asked
            why he was so set on this notebook, he said he didn’t want Credit Gone West
            just to vanish one day . . .

So there we have the set up, with the history of the bar and its owner, Stubborn Snail, and the stories of its hard-drinking regulars, most of whom are down-and-outers like our narrator.  Among the many colorful characters, there is the Pampers guy, who sure enough wears Pampers due to a leaky butt from a long stay in prison where he got worked over pretty good:  “I can show you my backside, you could make a fist and put it up me, no problem, that’s the truth, I never even got a trial in this shit-hole of a country.”  The Pampers guy’s story quite typically involves a woman, his ex-wife in this case, who got him sent to prison on every charge in the book, including having sex with his own daughter, though it was most likely his drunken and roving ways at the local brothel (or not).  Now his damp backside is buzzing with flies, but he doesn’t mind, ’cause they’re his “best buddies” these days.

Then there is the Printer, who tells Broken Glass his story belongs in the book because he’s “done France.”  The Printer had a pretty white wife, and life was great until he found a condom “about the size of my own dick, which is itself enormous,” floating in the toilet.  There was a rumour she had a black lover.  The Printer figures “it’s not hard to catch a white woman who’s two-timing you with a negro, you just have to say something insulting about Africa and negroes, that all negroes are starving, mud-hut-dwelling idle good-for-nothings with their civil wars and their machete brawls, and a white woman will instantly give herself away, but I decided it wasn’t a good idea to go down that route with her, I’d look like a racist, however justified.”

Robinette is the aging female regular, who has a reputation for being able to piss longer than anyone in the history of Credit Gone West, until a well-dressed dandy stops by one day and challenges her to a pissing contest in the back lot. Robinette pisses an ocean and farts from the pressure to keep it going, but this guy is a worthy contender.

Part II focuses more on the life of Broken Glass himself, who was once a primary schoolteacher, but like the other bar clientele, he liked his wine and women.  As he tells it: “when I was teaching  I apparently even used to turn up late for classes whenever I’d been drinking, and apparently I even used to show my buttocks to the children in anatomy class, and apparently I even used to draw giant sex organs on the board, and apparently I even used to piss in a corner of the classroom, and apparently I even used to pinch my colleagues’ bottoms, male and female, and apparently I even used to offer palm wine round to the pupils, and since there is no such thing as a little problem in this broken world . . . ”  the regional inspector ordered him to be sent to the bush, but that idea didn’t appeal; hence, another unemployed regular at Credit Gone West, who never once uses a full stop to record these sad but hilarious raw and gritty stories, but who does so in the most readable, enjoyable way that you’re quite bummed when the book ends.  Great voice; great reading.   J.A.

See the Robinette story from Broken Glass in this issue

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews

Frederick Barthelme  
Doubleday, 2009.

Fifteen months after Katrina, along the wasted strip of Waveland on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we find middle-aged, divorcé Vaughn Williams, now living with his new landlady/girlfriend, Greta Del Mar, “shipwreck victims washed up on some blown-out shore.”   Vaughn was once an architect, but slowly descended the ladder, leveling off at teaching in a local college though he has done hardly any work since his wife of twenty years, Gail, suggested he leave one month after Katrina.

Just as the physical terrain is derailed, these three disparate souls are uncentered, adrift in a world turned literally in part, post-Katrina, upside down.  Gail has taken up with a rough, young tree trimmer who beat her silly and sent her to hospital, though she refuses to press charges and still sees the kid on the sly.  Vaughn is near phlegmatic in his relationship with the younger Greta.  And Greta, while the most stable of all, seems not to have much direction herself, and was once even accused of killing her husband though the charge was dismissed.

After the beating, Gail asks Vaughn and Greta to move in with her in her big, brick house. Vaughn feels she needs looking after, having always been a bit off center, and the plucky Greta agrees to the move.  Here the threesome reside easily enough, joined occasionally by Greta’s friend, Eddie, who rents her garage room back at the bungalow.  Eddie lost a hand in the Gulf War, and now spends his time drinking and getting angry at the people on TV and other powers that be.  Vaughn kind of takes to the guy.

All is not well, however.  Gail suggests that she and Vaughn remarry, which he’d hardly seen coming. Then later, at Gail’s request, arrives Vaughn’s brother Newton, who had dated Gail before she married Vaughn and who Vaughn has never gotten on with. 

The everyday interaction of these individuals—including one encounter between Vaughn and Gail’s young boyfriend who beat her up—moves the novel along nicely.  Vaughn meditates often on his father whom he feels he did not take proper care of before his death; he is weighed down by guilt, a guilt his brother does not share; for him, the old man was a “sick fuck.”

Above all, this is a meditation on the middle stage of life where the characters have ex’s in tow to complicate their lives (even the dead one interferes), and the youthful passion of getting “swept away” in a new relationship is not going to happen. When one’s limitations are realized with finality.  When everything suddenly seems to come to a halt, mirroring the still ravaged landscape that never seems to get cleaned up and back to where it was before. 

Where does one go from here?  How does one cope?  Our protagonist Vaughn and Greta seem blown by the wind, merely filling in time—taking long drives, often late at night; drinking milkshakes and eating fast food; going to the casino; watching cop shows on TV.   No, it’s hardly the life he’d envisioned, and how he—and the others—comes to terms with it forms the driving force of the novel.

Anyone who’s read Barthelme’s Elroy Nights will see parallels galore, which is obviously deliberate. In that novel, middle-aged Elroy, living apart from his wife of many years, is equally adrift:   his career as an artist has foundered (he now teaches part-time at the local college); he is equally guilt ridden over the lack of attention paid to his father during his last days, and he has a girlfriend (a young student, in this case, his step-daughter’s age) while  still feeling attached to his wife - just the flip side of Waveland where Gail takes up with a young boy.

Waveland is a variation of the earlier novel, Elroy morphed into a slightly older, more resigned, post-Katrina Vaughn.  Elroy had his moments of getting swept away with the lovely young student, but Vaughn would hardly stand a chance there.  Both comment with great insight on middle age.   Vaughn sums it up like this:

            You get to a point and things that used to mean something don’t mean what
            they used to mean. The game changes.  You don’t want what you used to
            want.  You don’t care what you used to care about.  You don’t need what you
            used to need.  The whole world becomes a backdrop, a kind of cartoonish
            painting at the rear of the stage to which you pay not much attention.  You
            only half listen to what people have to say, you only half see what’s out the
            window.  Sometimes you see people in stores or restaurants and you can’t
            understand how they got there, what they think they’re doing, why they’re
            got-up so, why they’re trying so hard, what they’re after, what they hope
            for, what they wish.  It’s impossible to figure these things out and you don’t
            care anyway.  You drift through the days.  They come and go.

Back in Elroy, Elroy’s neighbor, trying to sell him on Vitality capsules, says to him:  “Vitality of your brain is the most important. So many older people I know lose that . . . they become like musk oxen.  Bumping around, riding around in their big cars, nothing at all in the head.”   This is our Vaughn.  But there is resolution in both novels.  And no one I know has tagged middle age better age better than Barthelme.  Vaughn can even make us chuckle here and there; thank god, because these novels truly throw up a mirror.    J.A.