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issue 38: September - October 2003

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Note: TBR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice-versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK  carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by unless otherwise noted.

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Night Visits by Ron Butlin: Serpent’s Tail, 2003

Scottish author Ron Butlin first came to attention with The Sound of My Voice, a highly original short novel which follows an executive in his daily life of die-hard alcoholism. Now comes Night Visits, another impressively innovative narrative, darker yet in tone and subject, that explores the confounding emotions of repression, grief, guilt and hidden sexual tension. If you like feel-good novels that leave you feeling smug and smiling, then Butlin novels are not for you. But if you prefer a more challenging read that probes deep into the human psyche - first-rate fiction, in short - then you’ll find your reward.

The book opens when young Malcolm, just shy of his tenth birthday, enters his sick father’s room to call him to supper; when he doesn’t respond, a nudge to the shoulder sends him toppling over, his head hitting the floor with a crack that reverberates throughout the novel. With his father’s death, Malcolm and his grieving mother Margaret must move in with Margaret’s older sister Fiona, a cold and peculiar solitary woman who has turned the dreary family residence into a nursing home. The return to her childhood home is unnerving to Margaret and depressing to young Malcolm, who must be quiet at all hours to allow the old people to sleep. For Malcolm: "From your very first look the house said NO."

The sisters’ father has long been dead and we soon learn that their mother, now ten years deceased, had been a fierce and abusive tyrant from whom Margaret fled at an early age. Fiona, however, remained and later nursed her until her death. Nowadays, Fiona spends her time administering the nursing home and keeping to a strict daily routine which includes Bible reading, most often The Book of Ruth. "Over the years she had pared her life down to the most basic elements to keep herself safe. Apart from her Church commitments she never went out in the evening, never had visitors. She’d created a pattern for her life, a routine that protected her. At forty-seven years old she had thought herself beyond danger." But at night, she begins making secret visits to a nearly comatose old woman, Mrs. Goldfire. The nursing home staff wonder why Mrs. Goldfire’s photos have been overturned and why she has scratches and bruises on her hand. Fiona appears to be perplexed as well - and vows to herself to be more careful in the future. She tries, in fact, to resist the temptation to make her night visit, but she is drawn to the room with a quivering anticipation akin to sexual arousal. Taking the old woman’s hand in hers, she finds peace.

This bizarre night-time activity takes a new turn when she enters young Malcolm’s room while he is sleeping. She will soon involve him in the night visits, the "benefits" of which she goes to great lengths to justify.

Told alternately from the points of view of young Malcolm and his Aunt Fiona, we follow the disturbing drama of the household to its ultimate conclusion. Reflections, literal and metaphorical, form the structural set-up of the novel; central images are provided by reflections coming from a mirror or glass. As Malcolm stares into his reflection, he wonders what it would feel like actually being his reflection . . ."The same as looking into the room through a window, maybe?" Interestingly, both Malcolm and his mother will later view Fiona through a window.

Just as Fiona has worked to keep herself "safe," so has Malcolm. After his father died, Malcolm had the experience of flying from his bed to the ceiling, a sensation that felt "Like drowning, but only at first. Then it was like floating." He further develops this feeling of detachment when he speaks of the necessity of keeping things on the outside. It is fitting, then, that a shattered window helps bring the novel to its cathartic conclusion.

A lot is packed into the 152 pages of Night Visits - a tight plot where each scene and object (a compass, a toy yacht, etc.) symbolically reflect another, where each character serves as a mirror to another. Like the jigsaw puzzle that Aunt Fiona contemplates, the novel is perfectly pieced together. Best of all, for all its emotional complexity, it is a thoroughly engaging, easily readable story that will long stay with you. With just the right director, who would let the scenes speak for themselves, I would love to see this novel made into a film, for the powerful Bergmanesque visual images, so rich in symbolism, are indeed memorable. A haunting, ingeniously conceived work from a master of the dark side of the human soul. J.A.

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Loot and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003

Reviewing Nadine Gordimer’s latest collection of short fiction may, at first glance, seem superfluous. On the one hand, it’s unlikely that such a book will change her reputation in any critical sense, her body of work now numbering thirteen novels and nine story collections. On the other hand, even if well received, what new value is there to merely reiterate her position as one of contemporary fiction’s leading practitioners? This kind of dilemma could perhaps be an extension of a similar one held by any author late in his or her career after the best work has been written, when time is taken to collect smaller pieces in order to ensure that the author’s complete work is in print, and such volumes are published in order to convey that the author is still in top form. Such a perspective seems a bit unfair, however, in Nadine Gordimer’s case, given that her career has not rested on any single novel like her peers Günter Grass, Gabriel García Márquez, or even J. M. Coetzee. Instead, her reputation has been based on one of persistent output over five decades of writing that has contained political import for sure but, perhaps more significant to recognize now, has also been consistently experimental in style and form.

The end of apartheid in 1994 raised questions in some circles as to what new thematic directions South African literature might take, and a number of possibilities have been raised since then. André Brink has delved deeper into the colonial past, while younger authors like Zakes Mda, Zöe Wicomb, and Sello Duiker have grappled with the harsh, ongoing present within black communities. Coetzee has lately ventured into a number of different areas: memoir, critical work largely on Eastern European literature, and a new novel this fall that originates in Australia. Gordimer, as with her previous writing, continues to observe the present she sees, though now more expansively: the word "globalization" seems to gently tap one’s shoulder while reading her recent work. The Pick Up, her last novel, had this quality going for it with its plot elements of transnational lovers, language lessons, and passport problems. Loot and Other Stories continues this broad outlook. As Gordimer herself writes, "the writer knows something no-one else knows; the sea-change of the imagination." Capturing the local interconnections that articulate this new imaginary is what she is after.

Her previous skill at describing the social protocols that separate us and the moments when they are transgressed serves her well. Instead of white suburban families and their black servants, African activists and their settler counterparts, the stories here follow star-crossed development officials as in "Mission Statement"; a short-lived affair born on a plane bound for Cape Town as in "The Generation Gap"; and even the malarial mosquito as global traveller in the satirical "An Emissary." Each piece addresses rules and what happens when they are unheeded or, more often, actively broken. But this isn’t to argue for the safety of origins or final destinations either. In "L,U,C,I,E," a story regarding a father-daughter trip from South Africa to Italy to visit the family cemetery, Gordimer, through the voice of Lucie, writes: "The so-called search for identity bores me. I know who I am. You know well enough who you are." However, as Lucie describes the trip and explains the roots of her name, we learn of a history of past pain and the troubled meaning it carries to the present. In "Homage," the narrator, a one-time assassin, similarly depicts how a previous assignment has crystallized his sense of self, despite his apparent mobility and anonymity: "I am nobody; no country counts me in its census, the name they gave me doesn’t exist: nobody did what was done."

This sense of the past is what often orients Gordimer’s protagonists, if also in ambiguous and interpretive, rather than factually reliable, ways. The story "Mission Statement" – one of the longest in the collection and closest to her previous work – portrays in part the impact a past legend has on the relationship between an English development worker and an African government official. Whether apocryphal or not, it mitigates the course of their relationship as they seek to find a sense of future possibility under conditions of professional and cultural restraint. The title story "Loot" which begins the collection and provides it with a map of sorts consists of an allegory of a massive earthquake exposing a seabed to be robbed of its hidden, past treasures, only to submerge those driven to loot through a massive tsunami. The final story "Karma" uses the device of reincarnation to loop through the lives of several couples and to provide an alternative to the tired concept of memory with the more troubling idea of unavoidable return: "It means you are condemned to live forever."

It is this ongoing journeying – from place to place, between past and present – that keeps the world fresh throughout this collection, and perhaps keeps Gordimer writing. Though this book is unlikely to change her stature, it deserves an audience among those who are interested in reading the work of a writer who is still trying to expand her reach and localize globalization, as contradictory as that might sound. As Gordimer herself writes, in the story "Visiting George": "If I dreamt this, while walking, walking in the London streets, the subconscious of each and every other life, past and present, brushing me in passing, what makes it real? Writing it down." Christopher Joonhai Lee

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Love Me by Garrison Keillor: Viking, 2003

‘Coming of Grave’ is a term I coined in another review to sum up the writings of baby boomers as they become aware of their mortality. Keillor is just a wee bit older than a boomer but Love Me is a Coming of Grave classic.

The plot is pretty much summed up in the prologue, so I am not giving much away, as Larry Wyler, ‘an old married guy,’ contemplates possible sex with his wife, Iris, and does a quick, edited highlights look back on his life. It seems the two have been close to divorce on several occasions. ‘She almost divorced me again after I shot the publisher of The New Yorker.’ Wyler rose to fame years before with the success of his novel, Spacious Skies. Money and ego went to his head; he left Iris in St Paul, Minnesota, rented a fancy apartment in New York’s Bel Noir, and started work at The New Yorker in the days when William Shawn was editor. But the second novel bombs and Wyler gets writer’s block, a block so great that it will last most of his life, but his career, and rent, is kept under control by a newspaper advice column he writes under the name of Mr. Blue.

The novel therefore simply fills in the details. From the young Wyler meeting the earnest Democrat Iris (the Republicans get short change in this book with ‘narrow-minded, tongue-tied frat boy’ George W getting slated at the end). Then there is Wyler ‘conceiving’ the book that will change his life, moving to New York and The New Yorker, where J.D Salinger’s office is a couple of doors down and one can bump into people like John Updike in the hallways. We also have Wyler’s many indiscretions and the slow come around to try and win back the wife he very nearly loses.

Wyler is a bit of an asshole and the simple title takes on different shades of meaning as his ego grows and diminishes. As he deals with the lonely, frustrated and just plain odd souls (some of whom he knows personally) who write to Ask Me Blue, Wyler is able to see through his own stupidity and realizes the huge mistake he has made in treating Iris like dirt. With his life going nowhere fast, surviving on past glory and a block that’s not going to leave, he is The New Yorker staff’s choice to shoot the publisher, a mafia type who wants to turn the magazine into a fishing/sports review. Having, sort of, succeeded, the victim ‘lay on the floor…quietly discoloring the carpet and said, quietly, "You’ll never write for my magazine again, Larry Wyler," and expired.’ His New York adventure now over, he returns to St Paul and attempts to correct his errors, which he obviously does as the prologue suggests a happy ending, and tradition says they have to get back together anyway, but Keillor has one final card up his sleeve and the epilogue brilliantly manages to throw ice over an otherwise quite funny, amusingly observed and enjoyable novel.

The New Yorker section almost verges on the surreal with its mafia references and the mix of fact and fiction, but Keillor was actually involved with the magazine and he also really did write a Mr. Blue advice column in Salon magazine. We clearly have strong autobiographical references throughout, which add a certain authenticity to some of the author’s comments on authors and publishing. For those whose first book was a bestseller, let the trials and tribulations of Larry Wyler be a warning. M.G.S

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Tiny Ladies by Adam Klein: Serpent’s Tail, UK, 2003

Carrie moves to Iowa City to begin a new life as a caseworker counseling troubled people and helping them get back on their feet. She says, "For some people, trouble runs so deep in them no part is left unaffected. You spend your time trying to help them fix a thing here or there, but they cut you like a handful of shards. People are fragile; once they’re broken you can’t piece them back." We soon discover that her observation about the people she treats also applies to herself.

As her everyday life unfolds with her visits to The Deadwood bar, her friendship with two lesbians, and the comfort she derives from her dog King, poignant memories of her past bring her character into focus. We learn of her drug-addicted parents, her childhood neglect, her episodes of sexual abuse, and the subsequent feelings of loneliness which plague her throughout her life. "How many sleeping pills will it take me to fall asleep, make my mind a blank?" She turns to drugs, and her life spirals downwards as she becomes more addicted: she uses dope to cope with her feelings of loss when her mother has a stroke in the hospital; she overdoses on cocaine to induce a miscarriage. At last, she reveals that she is hiding from her ex-boyfriend Victor, a violent con and drug addict.

To her credit, she never slips into making excuses for herself, for complaining or feeling sorry for herself. She is blunt, unapologetic. In the end, it is her sharp eye for detail and her poetic voice that keep the book from sounding like a therapy session. The prose is achingly lyrical in places, and appropriately spare in others.

My father once told me you could hear the ocean in the sound of a conch shell. I wondered what sound I was hearing in the pillow. Perhaps it was the sound of the secret Jim and I kept, or the ones belonging to the people past and present who’d slept in these beds, stepping over doorways and into each other’s private universes. I fell asleep that way, as I often did, with my thoughts thrown out like a net, too wide to gather anything by the shadows crawling over the room, the indistinct sounds from the other side of the wall.

Carrie’s present life becomes intertwined with that of Hannah, a young painter, who comes to her office after being released from a drug rehabilitation program. Despite the rules of the office, the two women are drawn to each other and quickly become friends. "It’s not places that make these things happen, not the dirty hotel rooms or the fine homes that are supposed to deliver you from them. It’s the rooms inside us, how we manage their emptiness." Carrie soon discovers that Hannah has her own dark secrets, and a guilt from which she is unable to flee. As she learns about Hannah’s past and comes to terms with her own, the relationship between both women progresses, paradoxically by moving backward, until present and past converge.

The book is full of disturbing revelations, providing an uncompromising view of the realities of abuse and drug addiction. But fear not, gentle readers, these characters are not without hope. By the end of the book, Carrie and Hannah bring redemption and healing to each other in the most surprising of ways. Whitney Lee

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Fear Itself by Walter Mosley: Little, Brown and Company, U.S.; Serpent’s Tail, UK (October 2003)

I missed out on Fearless Jones, the first book introducing Mosley’s new protagonists, so was intrigued to find in this second novel that the author has basically recreated his famous Easy Rawlins character as Paris Minton, and Mouse as Fearless Jones. The similarities are there: Paris has invested in bricks and mortar, is quiet, intelligent and well read. Fearless is big, extremely violent if pushed but normally gentle. Both series are set in L.A during the 50s, both pairs met during the war and so on. Rather than be offended by a character so obviously reworked, I actually took to Mr. Minton and would have to say I prefer him in many respects to Rawlins.

Paris Minton is the narrator of the Fearless stories. If it were up to him he would quite happily stay in his second-hand bookstore making a nickel or less. He is not a coward as such but is scared of the slightest thing and quite useless in a fight, fainting or running away being favorite tactics should he get into one. He is also terrified of guns. But fate has been cruel – or kind, depending on your perspective – to Paris Minton by pairing him with his polar opposite, Fearless Jones. Fearless is the catalyst who drags the reluctant Paris from his books to get him to do the one thing he is really good at – asking questions. Paris is an inquisitive reader and likes answers from his books; the same applies to humans, so when Fearless asks for help Paris doesn’t rush to his aid because he is a friend but because his curiosity has been piqued. Which is exactly what happens when Fearless comes banging on his door at some early hour in the morning requesting aid to help find an attractive woman’s missing husband, who also happens to be the person Fearless is working for. Next morning a total stranger knocks on Paris’ door asking for Fearless and information about the same missing man.

Like the Rawlins novels the basic crime is, more or less, domestic – it’s not huge drug gangs or mafia but rather the little man, the petty thief or thug, caught up in events that spin out of control. It is into such a mess that mild-mannered, scaredy-cat Paris Minton comes along asking questions, and in the process we discover other aspects of Mr. Minton: apart from being intelligent and ‘well hung’, he is a money lover (to hilarious cost) and a little dishonest. It is the killer Fearless who is the honest one, the one who shows kindness when needed. "If Fearless and I worked for a corporation I would have been his boss’s boss’s boss. But in the world of hearts and minds I was more like his dog".

The Fearless Jones / Paris Minton mix works well. Mosley pretty much had the formula down with Easy Rawlins and Mouse, but here the baggage that slowed Easy down – adopted kids, unfaithful lovers, guilt about having money etc – has been discarded. Fear Itself is self-contained; a reader new to Mosley can jump in with no problems. After the experience, I suspect that, like me, you’ll want to know just how Fearless is going to winkle Paris out of his beloved bookstore the next time round. M.G.S

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© 2003The Barcelona Review
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issue 38: september - october 2003 

Short Fiction

Ron Butlin: The Mighty Handful Versus the Rest of the World
Alicia Gifford: Surviving Darwin
Ryland W. Greene: What D’ya Know
Sarah Strickley: Annie Has a Thing, Makes Her Crazy
Richard Ailes: The Bounce

   picks from back issues
Anthony Bourdain: Bobby at Work
Bill Broady: In This Block There Lives a Slag . . .


Book Titles
answers to last issue’s Literature-to-film - the Sequel

Book Reviews

Night Visits by Ron Butlin
Loot and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer
Love Me by Garrison Keillor
Tiny Ladies by Adam Klein
Fear Itself by Walter Mosley

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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