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issue 28: January - February 2002

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The Burning Mirror by Suhayl Saadi: Polygon, Scotland, 2001

The glossary that comes with this debut story collection contains a mix of Punjabi and Scottish Gaelic, which clues the reader to what’s in store. Yorkshire-born Saadi, whose family moved to Scotland four years later (where he was the only non-white in his grammar school), astutely chronicles the complexities and difficulties of the Pakistan-Scottish personality, which comprise four of the twenty stories. In "The Queens of Govan" one sees the young girl Rubina - in her black jeans and leather jacket - working in a kebab shop in Govan; "[Ruby] wis used tae the double-life. At home, she wis totally, nauseatingly Mashriki, Ah ho, God-be-with-you, behtiye khala ji, while outside, in the darkness of night or beneath the burnin sun of the parks, she would be rampant and would slip off towards the dives which no one knew the names of." "The Dancers" portrays teenager Rosh, daughter of a mixed marriage: "When she felt Irish, she would be Róisín Dhu, the black rose, and when she thought that she was Faisalabadi, she would revert to Roshani, the ray of light." The young boy Salman in "Bandanna" is embarrassed by his parents’ occupation as Pakistan shopkeepers and doesn’t want to be seen working in the store ("he wisnae hovin that, his fellow-gang members seein him mop a fuckin flaer"). Known as "Sal" in the gang, he roams the streets with his mates and exchanges Bronx palm-slaps. But the pull of his Muslim heritage runs deep, as he discovers. In "Ninety-nine Kiss-o-grams," the opening story, an older Sal (who could possibly be the adult gang-boy of the latter story) is left a deed from his grandfather to a bit of land in Pakistan. He travels there to sell the worthless dirt plot and his running commentary in heavy Scottish dialect on his family’s native land proves an extraordinary (and epiphanous) reading experience: "Nuthin wis certain here, Nuthin. Mibbee you were alive, mibbee you were dead. Mibbee there was a God, mibbee there were ten thousand. Everyone had a different version of everything, and nothin wis written doon." Trying to picture this man - looking as Pakistan as the natives around him, but speaking in such a strange tongue - is a disturbing, incongruous experience that jars the reader into a recognition of the cultural crossroad at which the narrator finds himself.

One would have liked more of these cross-cultural stories, given they’re done so well, but Saadi’s scope is far wider. On the one hand we have the "English" stories: set in England with native, non-immigrant English characters. Beginning with "The Naked Heart," the story of an old man (John) who once gave his life to the church of an evangelical Catholic vicar until an unwanted physical passion for fellow member Terri causes him such guilt that he leaves the church to live alone and conduct such good deeds as he can (volunteering at OXFAM, for example), only to learn that such passion will not die, we move on to the next story ("The Ladder"), where Terri appears later in life with her lover of several years, Bernard; she has left the church as well, but has failed to find meaning in her relationship. The following story ("The Seventh Chamber") provides the conclusion to this loose trilogy: Terri is now an old nun, "Sister Theresa," whose life is recalled from earlier days to the last thirty years in her convent cell where "deep down in the centre of her soul, she had never left the tiny cube of darkness with its high, narrow grill." It is a triptych of restrained, thwarted and perverted passion, Sister Theresa somewhat reminiscent of Louise Erdrich’s brilliant Sister Leopolda in Love Medicine.

Then there are stories set in Scotland with non-immigrant Scottish natives where passion is free to run its natural course. In "Imolc" a man looks back at the time of his sexual awakening when he was eleven; he’d visited the "broch" (fairy-mound) in the "coille" (woods) where the buxom Big Bridie was said to reside and where his grannie warned him never to go: "Ah wis feart but ah wis also gae [quite] blithe an a terrible drůis [lust] seemed tae come fae the big, cauld stane and tae rise up through ma wee stanes and alang ma tadger [penis], the insides ae ma thighs, ma belly, ma back, richt the way up tae ma heid which began poundin it wis like Cailleach a’ Gheamhraidh bangin her hammer on the grun tae steek the earth fur the wold month aye . . . " The poetry of the language - not so hard to follow as it may seem, with a little help from the glossary and the perseverance of a page or two - raises the mundane coming-of-age tale to a haunting, mystical experience steeped in Celtic folklore. This is followed by "Beltrane" which tells of the married woman Deirdre and her lover Scott (the young boy of "Imolc") of the red, Viking hair ("For passion he would do anything"); while next we have "Samhain" (Feast of All Souls), which fast-forwards to Scott as an old man at the end of his life thinking back to when "he wis a wee boy in the coille" and to the "heiven" that was "the wumin [who] wis awreedie mairrit but he hudnae cairt"; he treated her badly, we learn, and has ended up alone in a wretched "bothan" (hut). Following the line of Celtic myth in these stories is "Lughnasadh," the tale of four Irish university students on vacation in western England in 1933 where they, too, encounter a "broch" on a walk through the woods which unleashes their sexual inhibitions and leads to a joyful naked romp in a river in the heart of the forest.

Then there are the shimmering, near-mystical tales set in a timeless Pakistan which draw on the mythical cultural legacy of that country. "Brick" tells of a brickmaker who yearns for the spiritual purity of the fiery kiln; "Rabia" follows the life of a 17-year-old boy in the mountainous region north of Kashmir who becomes obsessed with finding the beautiful Rabia whom he had seen at the market one morning; and "Qadi" is the story of an Islamic judge who was once a slave, but rose to judge and scholar only to fall prey to a spiritual sickness late in life.

Another sequence - out of time and without setting - begins with "Darkness," in which the fearsome side of darkness speaks in the first person, reading at times almost like the Stones’ "Sympathy for the Devil" ("I was with Caesar, in the whoosh of bloody retracting blade"), but transcends both god and the devil: "Even the Bible has an end and I am it. Before Yahweh were the waters and I am the waters. Before dark was the dark and I am that. I am the ultimate resorber, the garbage-can of your dreams . . . I rim with Satan, only to outwit him in the End; I kiss God’s mouth, only to be swallowed and defaecated . . . I am the missing link between you and your happiness." For an abstract narrator, it possesses a powerful and unnerving voice. "Mistigris," which experiments with form, follows through time the seductive woman - one could say the naughty, tart side of the Madonna/Whore dichotomy - here presented as a "Vampyr" (she even rode with Kesey on the magic bus); while "Dancing in Vienna" follows another seductive "everywoman" through a period of past history, here set in Vienna. And then there is the (deceptively) quaint fable "Solomon’s Jar," telling the story of how a "Museum Curator" releases a "jinn," which is curiously set - as we learn only through a footnote - in the distant future.

There is also a love story between a Serb and a Muslim in present-day Bosnia ("The White Eagles"); and the arresting, last story "Killing God," which follows the demented psyche of a jealous lover immediately after a car accident.

A second reading of this fine collection would undoubtedly reveal more structural and thematic connections. Its rich prose, which dares to be different with its unusual metaphors and striking turns of phrase, is the kind of language one often encounters with those not writing in their first language (Conrad, Nabokov, Kosinski), which is to say bold, fresh and wholly original. Of course, unlike them, Saadi’s native language is English, but just as the ancestral religious strains rise up through the young boy in "Bandanna," so does an exotic linguistic strain work its way through Saadi’s prose, giving it an innovative, distinctive literary flair. It is a striking debut collection - moving, passionate, and intellectually stimulating - which leaves you longing for more. J.A. [For a look at one of the stories, see "Bandanna" from issue 27 of TBR.]

His Tongue by Lawrence Schimel: Frog, Ltd., U.S., 2001

In this latest collection of gay erotica, Lambda Award-winning author Lawrence Schimel delivers thirteen juicy stories that make for some delicious and steamy bedtime reading (preferably with a lover "at hand"). The narrator of the stories - different in each, but similar sounding - is typically a good-looking, twenty- or thirtysomething gay boy who knows his way around the bottom rung of the likes of the infamous Mineshaft, but appreciates commitment in a relationship and isn’t afraid to love. That human side, with all its vulnerability, is what makes this collection so special. Our narrator is street savvy and knows all the moves, but he’s not callous and cynical, and that makes the graphic sex - and there’s plenty - especially erotic and fun to read.

In "Past Tense" the young, Manhattan narrator runs into three ex-lovers in one day, which drives him to want some anonymous bathhouse sex in order to escape the emotional weight of the past; suffice it to say he gets the sex. In the delightful and naughty "Practice Pony," the Yale University student-narrator signs up for the polo team and gets the ride of his life; while in "Minyan" we follow a shy narrator to a Jewish sex party that has a hard time getting off (pun intended) until the exotic entrance of some "foreskin" works its magic. "Hansel & Gretel & Gerd," set in Berlin, plays a bit with the fairy tale but will be remembered for Gerd’s huge member and the narrator’s eager attempts to accommodate it. And in "Clothes Make the Man," around "a dozen fags" gather at an ex-mannequin designer’s apartment for their yearly cross-dress make-over on Wigstock morning (don’t forget to "tuck," honey).

Then there are stories of sex in the kitchen; sex in the Manhattan Cloisters Museum; sex in a claw-foot porcelain tub; sex on a boat with a watching crew; anonymous sex in the pitch-dark back room of a gay club (while the narrator’s partner is away, but, hey, they have their "rules"); and even a flirtatious encounter in the waiting room of an STD clinic. There are also two luscious Christmas stories: "Season’s Greetings" and "A Queer Christmas Carol" (with some very choice ghosts of Christmases past, and not without its own Tiny Tim). There’s plenty of fucking, sucking, tonguing; plenty of lube; plenty of dicks with "heft"; plenty of nice "baskets" and bottoms; plenty of spunk - this is gay erotica at its best: hardcore with a heart.

Schimel’s prose is sharp and engaging, and above all he knows how to weave a good story, which, along with the warm and human element, places this collection at the very top of its genre. Highly recommended for gay boys and hetero chicas (who’ve always shared a love of "heft") and for all those other (sexually secure) curious readers who’d like to take a walk on the queer-boy side. I could present a case for its social/sexual-cultural relevance - and wouldn’t be amiss - but that label dampens its spirit somehow. Read if for fun and read it for what erotica should be read for: a right good turn-on. J.A. [For a taster, see the short story "Water Taxi" in this issue of TBR.]

Hieroglyphics by Anne Donovan: Canongate, Scotland, 2001

Scottish writer Anne Donovan offers a stunning debut collection of short fiction which begins with little girl narrators, speaking in Glaswegian dialect, and moves slowly to adult females - often mothers of little children - and ends with the voices of old women. It came as no surprise to read that Donovan is both a mother herself and a teacher as she has a perfect ear for the speech patterns and nuances of young children. In the opening title story "Hieroglyphics" a little girl’s dyslexia goes unnoticed both at home ("Ma mammy thoat ah wis daft. . .") and in the classroom, where she is simply considered slow and used as a messenger girl. The child’s point of view is straightforward - she accepts that she’s "daft" - and without self-pity. Heartbreaking as it is to consider such a plight, the story is buoyed by humor and the very bright mind and pluck of the little girl. "All that Glitters" gives us another little girl whose daddy is dying from asbestos poisoning; her discovery of "glitter pens" at school is something she can share with him. Once again, the potentially heartbreaking, predictable ending is turned into something subtly upbeat thanks to Donovan’s masterful touch. Other child voices involve a young girl who becomes obsessed with removing the ice covering a rocking horse in her granddaddy’s shed; an eight-year old’s attempt to tell Santa she wants love from her mother, who lavishes it all on her pretty, fair-haired sister; and a little girl’s e-mails to a virtual pen pal - taken on as a classroom assignment - who receives in reply e-mails from the planet Jupiter (the name of the correspondent’s server). Our next voice is that of a teenager who tells of a terrible, vengeful prank a couple of bad girls played on their math teacher, and leaves us wondering how innocent our narrator is.

An inspired transitional story ("A Chitterin Bite") interweaves a young girl’s voice with that of herself as an adult, providing a nice parallel piece: one part about two little girls who slowly grow apart, and the other of the adult who is currently involved with a married man. Another story portrays a single mother who wants more than "haund me doons" for her baby - and is willing to "knock them" if that’s what it takes; while yet another mother/child story follows the two on a visit to a nativity scene on a deadly cold winter’s day, where to the mother’s consternation her young daughter discovers a homeless person in the straw of the manger and persists in wanting to take him home. In these and other mother/child stories in this section, daddies do not appear to be a part of the family; at least, they don’t enter the pages. The work and child-raising is the mother’s responsibility - something they accept as the natural way of things.

"The Workshop" features a young female (another single mother) teaching a drama workshop at a school where she falls into an affair with a married teacher; secret sexual liaisons in the school appear not to be so secret, as the two discover. The curious "Marking Time" is the only story told from a young man’s point of view - an Italian this time, who has made Glasgow his home - but as the story unfolds, we see how it has its place in the collection.

In a natural and gradual progression, we find we’ve come to a story where a middle-aged woman recounts the loss of physical love for her husband while she must privately confront an oncoming disease; followed by the story of an older woman who is trying to come to terms with her husband’s changed personality after a heart transplant. Then comes "Dindy," where a woman appears to be barely hanging on after the loss of her son and the exhaustion of having lived with an unfit husband ("he’s like a wean hissel"). And at last two old age narrators: one portraying two spinster sisters, one of whom (the narrator) has Alzheimer’s. Of her sister, she says: "She never had any patience wi your conversation even before the words started tae get loast in your heid, she’d raither have read a book or sumpn than listen tae you jabberin oan lik a daft wee burdie."; and "Zimmerorbics," about an old woman’s encounter with an enthusiastic young aerobics teacher who visualizes making a name for herself by videoing classes of senior citizens exercising with their Zimmer frames.

Throughout the ages, Donovan presents authentic female characters, all of whom show a perseverance and determination despite obstacles. They are "no very religious" - a frequent refrain - and often working class and not well off, but they accept their lot - "These folk that talk aboot the happy medium have got it all wrang. Life has its extremes, whether it’s winnin the lottery or lossin yer family in a car crash, but they’re no the hard part. It’s the rest of it." These women deal with "the rest of it," knowing that that’s life, and if they don’t always make the right choices, they don’t blame their mistakes or misery on others. The lovely music of the Glaswegian dialect, as seen in many of the stories, is a sheer joy to read - especially those of the little girls, still so hopeful and spirited. Hieroglyphics is a tender and moving collection, full of good humor - often unintentional on the narrators’ part, but never at their expense - that is a quiet testament to the passion and durability of the female spirit. J.A. [See the short story "Hieroglyphics" from issue 20 of TBR.]

A Date with My Wife by Brian McCabe: Canongate, Scotland, 2001

These 18 stories , set in Scotland, cover quite a range. The opening piece, "Welcome to Knoxland," is a bit of sheer fun that follows an Internet "free tour" of "The Hottest Presbyterian Site on the Net (Warning: This is an adult hardcore religion site.)." "Something New" is set in the future and tells of the trend in genetic transplants, which everyone seems to be getting on almost a daily basis - the genetic genital grafts being especially popular. "Losing It" tells of a guy who loses his temper with his computer and does what we’d all like to do with our monitors at times; while"The Host" sails into surreal territory as the narrator, in the middle of a group discussing film, finds himself talking to a man with two heads. "Petit Mal" follows an epileptic, just after a petit mal, as he wanders into his landlady’s cottage thinking it his own, an occurrence that leads him to rethink his views of predestination and eternal occurrence (while bringing to mind Raymond Carver’s "Neighbors"). Other slightly out-of-kilter plots - as opposed to the surreal and speculative - include "Conversation Area One," a tale about a mother looking for her son in a mental institution on visiting day; and "An Invisible Man," the story of an undercover department store security guard who gets lost in his own maze.

The remaining stories are more realistic, although they all carry a somewhat unsettling edge: "Waiting at the Stairs" tells of a disabled man who likes to visit a sauna for sex, but as it’s located down a flight of stairs, he must wait in a wheelchair on the street outside for assistance ("This was the bit he hated."); while "Relief" follows a man on his weekly trip to a sex-massage parlour where this time the encounter takes a turn. "Out of Order" follows one side of a telephone conversation as a guy tells of the night’s events at a snooker hall; and the delightful "Shouting it Out" is about young love and the difficulty of saying those three words, even when you want to. The title story "A Date with my Wife" is about a middle-aged, suburban family man recounting the hours leading up to a "date" with his wife, a necessary arrangement due to hectic schedules. And then there are stories of a broken-hearted young man’s heightened sense of hearing; a freelance writer’s bureaucratic tax nightmare; an old and addled Co-op trolley handler, seated over a pint in his local pub; a young boy’s ordeal to get out of the house - which also involves "coming out"; and that of a bad little boy who doesn’t always know what’s he’s being punished for, but sometimes, yes, "like when you tied the cat’s ears shut with elastic bands and cut his whiskers off with the scissors."

The longest selection, "A New Alliance," which comprises a quarter of the book, is a traditional story divided into two sections. In the first part, a group of 14-year-old boys from Dryburgh, Scotland travel with their PE teacher ("Peezle") to visit their school’s "twin-town" in France, the equally run-down burg of Sense (pronounced Sawns, boys) where "the housing blocks were a dirty white colour, four storeys high, surrounded by dusty reddish ground with the odd patch of dried worn grass . . . like the tenements in Craigmillar, except that they had wee balconies and shutters at the windows." Part two is four months later when the French boys - and some girls - travel to Dryburgh. All the expected takes place: the Scottish boy Dougie gets sick in France drinking wine with meals, and throws up when he tastes Camembert; and they all agree that it’s "Funny the way they serve out everything separate, eh?" Of course the French boys in Scotland can’t believe all the tea that’s drunk, which they don’t even like, and then there’s the language problem: Antoine asks: "Why do you not speak the proper English, Doogee?" The prissy, pedantic Antoine gets on Dougie’s nerves, so when the French boy asks what "glaiket eedjit" means, he’s told "trčs elegant." The real fun of these two stories, however, is the lower working-class setting of both cities and their inhabitants. Antoine’s dad is a mechanic; Dougie’s works in a mine. The parents of both families are thrown into a bit of turmoil, trying to act all proper with their foreign guests. Dougie looks at his own mum and dad as though for the first time . . . and that proves one the most revealing experiences of this whole cultural exchange. It’s an impressive collection, published by Canongate, who continue to put out some of the finest contemporary fiction to be found anywhere. [See the short story "Relief" in this issue of TBR.] J.A.

Ghost of a Flea by James Sallis: No Exit Press, U.K., 2002

The rather strange title fits in with all the other bug-related titles in Sallis's Lew Griffin series: we have had hornets, moths, crickets, long-legged flies and bluebottles. The last one, Bluebottle, was my only other foray into Griffin’s world and in that review I mentioned that it was a little difficult to quite get a fix on the black, New Orleans-based private detective / crime writer. Flea is more than likely the last in the series, and like the previous novel it takes a bit of the new reader’s energy to figure out who is who. One presumes Sallis wrote Flea believing that people don’t usually buy books out of sequence - and they don’t if they know it is a sequence, which is not clear here. A Griffin virgin therefore, picking up this book, has a bit of an uphill struggle – I did, and I’ve read one - but the end result is well worth the effort as this is a superb book: beautiful, lyrical, moving and oh-so-sad that I actually had tears in my eyes.

Somewhere Griffin’s lost the plot. He doesn’t detect any more and he doesn’t write any more and he barely raises a finger when a long-term lover walks out on him. Those thirsting for a puzzle or blazing guns and buckets of blood had best look elsewhere because the biggest mysteries here involve who is sending Lew’s goddaughter odd letters and e-mails and why all the pigeons in the park are dying. Then there is the body in the bed in the opening chapter that sends "the narrator" into the story (to say any more would be a spoiler). The true quest here is identity, an understanding of ‘self’: a theme that wove through Bluebottle and one presumes the other Griffin books. Lew seems incapable of understanding himself but has no trouble understanding others. For this reason he has loving, dedicated friends – even the ex-wife wants to declare peace – and shows kindness and consideration everywhere he goes; but can this smother some? Or is it his inability to come to terms with himself that drives loved ones, like his son, away? He is only in his fifties but acts like someone twenty years older who has given up. The answer may be in his alcoholic past or it just may well be that he is too darn well read. His life and thoughts seem driven by authors, by quotes, by books, begging the question, does Lew Griffin have an original emotional thought of his own? Flea becomes a roll call of writers, mostly well known but also the occasional forgotten one, such as Walter De La Mare.

Yes, even with some warm humour and witty dialogue, it is fairly depressing and maybe some under-thirties will think it sucks. To them I offer a grim warning: with thousands of baby-boomer authors heading for old age, books along the lines of Flea are going to be common. Hell, the BBs gave us a surfeit of coming-of-age nonsense, then the misery of hitting thirty/forty stuff, so expect a plethora of one-foot-in the grave tales (coming-of-grave, anyone?). If this is the case, Ghost of a Flea sets an impressive yardstick, I must say, and will certainly satisfy fans, but new readers may want to pick up one, two or even all of the Griffin novels to get the full benefit. M.G.S.

My Little Blue Dress by Bruno Maddox: Viking, U.S., 2001

If, like me, you’re male, the title is possibly not one you’d consider reading on the train but it does make for some amusement, as in "Have you seen my little blue dress?" or "I can’t get into my little blue dress" and so on. The title alone may deter possible male readers but the claim from William Monahan on the back cover that he blew coffee through his nose before he finished the first page may be more damaging because unless you're in on the novel's clever set-up before getting into ‘your little blue dress’, you'll wonder where such a claim comes from, and even then it hardly rates on the hilarity scale. With statements like that, can a buyer believe the rest of the blurb? Sure, it has its share of amusing moments, but this is not laugh-out-loud comedy; the humour is dark, sometimes gross, and, if truth be known, very unintentional (OK, intentionally unintentional, if you will) as one finds out at the end, because to "Bruno Maddox" this is a very, very serious life-and-death project. The joke is the bafflement as the reader tries to grasp just what is really going on.

The cover and other reviews give quite a lot away, something that won’t happen here, but the basics are as follows: one is led to believe My Little Blue Dress is a memoir by a hundred-year-old woman who was born on January 1, 1900, and has therefore seen in the new millennium. Fine, but as memoirs go this one is …er… crap. She hears the latest reports of World War One on a radio? She speaks in a modern New York style because she is allergic to the past? Her attitudes about sex seem those of a man, and occasionally another desperate voice interrupts the manuscript. Her memory is either shot or, could it be, she never did anything she says she did? Then, for some unknown reason, she writes reams on how wonderful her helper and next door neighbour, Bruno Maddox, is. Bruno Maddox? Now isn’t he the author…and at what point in the book does one get the impression there is going to be a murder?

You are not going to blow coffee out your nose on the first page or snort or guffaw, but you will get into My Little Blue Dress (a couple of tucks down the seam!) which eventually turns out to be the best and most original love story so far this century. It brilliantly portrays the childish things we pathetic males will do and the paths we will take to chat up then hang on to a girl. And then, boy, are we evil, conniving, desperate idiots when jealousy enters the equation or what? Bruno Maddox cleverly sets up "Bruno Maddox" to be the king of the losers . . . and skewers the quaint genre of personal memoir in the process. Excellent. M.G.S.

© 2002The Barcelona Review
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tbr 28              january - february  2002


Steven Rinehart - Burning Luv
Lawrence Schimel - Water Taxi
Brian McCabe - Relief
Marshall Moore - Sunset Over Brittany

             pick from back issues
Charles D'Ambrosio - Her Real Name

-Interview James Kelman
-Quiz Joyce Carol Oates
Answers to Virginia Woolf Quiz
-Book Reviews Suhayl Saadi, Anne Donovan, etc
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