I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews, turning leitmotifs into a gestalt. A hardback book I recently purchased via Amazon & received two days ago.
American Morons – Stories by Glen Hirshberg
Earthling Publications 2006
There is no guarantee how long it will take to complete this review, whether days or years.
CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading it. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.
All my other real-time reviews are linked from here: http://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/ (22 Feb 12)
“‘Howler monkeys?’ Kellen said softly to Jamie. ‘What the hell is that?'”
This first story seems poignantly appropriate to be read for the first time on the very day that Marie Colvin – a well-respected American journalist – has been tragically killed in Homs, Syria. This real-time thought of mine seems to disguise my otherwise lack of understanding of a short fiction that I feel sure will be eventually memorable or haunting: one where an American couple’s car in Rome is fuel-jacked on a toll-highway (reminding me obliquely of the opening of ‘1Q84’) with the sounds of screams or squawking birds just over the brow of the road: a pavane for a dead pavone…? There is much sinister going on (Twain’s ‘Innocents Abroad’?) and those Italians who come to ‘help’ them seem nightmare-driven or, at best, confused – but my own brain has also been fuel-jacked….and I hope hindsight will eventually do justice to this promising start of the book. (22 Feb 12 – 6.25 pm gmt)
Like a Lily in a Flood
“…one of those tiny roadside New Hampshire cemeteries that house at least one dead soldier from the Revoutionary War and three or four infants, with tree roots enfolding their graves like mothers’ arms.”
A sterile man – into his second marriage – revisits alone the area where his parents died: and the tangibility and handleability of ‘crammed’ books (so retrospectively telling in this coming day of nothing but the ebook, a great disappointment, in utero) – as his Hostess trawls over local and family history – and recites an old third party narration from among the books about forebearish events that become increasingly closer to this narration’s heart. I am, myself, here in the UK, one of those aforementioned Innocents Abroad as far as the high- and by-ways of this book is concerned, especially regarding my very scanty knowledge of the history of America, but a word I have often used in my real-time reviews and in my own theory of literature: ‘eschatology’: here implicitly comes home to roost like one of those birds now untrapped from beside the modern highway. And although, as I speak, I am still finding my way within the solid covers of this book, I feel already confident that it will not present a similar ‘great disappointment’ in itself. The style is richly literary, the tone modern genre. Crossing or, rather, straddling some missing-link of textured truth… We shall see. (22 Feb 12 – two hours later)
Flowers in Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air
“…SUVs skimming the streets like incoming seagulls and squawking at each other over parking places,…”
This is a wonderful story, one that I feel due to remember forever. It was backing a winner for me straightway, since it makes a striking job of conveying the ambiance of a sea resort complex (one upon the strangely permanent downward or out-of-season path) – equivalent, I sense, to a similar place here in the UK where I have lived for many years myself. The post-youthful relationships with one’s peers and with one’s dead forebears (cf: the previous story). And the edges of emotions, of characters, of motives – not in your face – but hinted at – emerge all the stronger. In parallel with the ‘edge’ of smog. The ‘edge’, too, of life’s ‘great disappointment’. The rich poignancy of a disused carousel. Beautiful turns of phrase. And there is something incredibly sad about a ‘change dispenser’ man in an amusement arcade carrying far too much change for the number of likely customers. And, as well, there are all the walk-on-part ‘characters’, sketched so evocatively, that tend to haunt such places. Or haunt for real. Making this essentially a ghost story of marked accomplishment. And what I call ‘line-hawling’ (plus a number) of the obsessive pinball wizards – and ‘line hawling’ of the fishermen etched against the sky’s rim: fishing within or close to a ‘Rooffed’-hat of a pier. And then the story’s coda: not a disappointment in itself because it ‘creates’ disappointment so convincingly. A blend of all our life’s disappointments. “Are there such things as blue raspberries?” (23 Feb 12 – 2.10 pm gmt)
“…we were juddering over a dirt road a bit narrower than the van, crushing bird-of-paradise stalks on either side…”
A morality tale, an amorality confessional, an immorality diaspora, where one needs to keep in mind the happiness one can best sow: viz. ice cream or ice cream, “a non sequitur or a nickname“, cockroach or fold-up conscience-clown… This is the stunning story of Max or ‘Big Screen’ as he becomes to be known, recently orphaned of his last forebear – when, starting a new job training with a team-building fleet of ice-cream vans and their in-built cartilaginous novelty ratchet-clowns who I see acting as traffic lollipop men for the mivvi-seeking kids and other customers: a fleet that leaves the ice-cream depot en masse with their cargo of frozen and unfrozen goodies in various formats like, for me, holiday coaches leaving their feeder-base at the same time for various parts of the continent with me and you and them and us on board the appropriate coach for the holiday destination we booked for: ready to be made happy (I’ve experienced this often). Not line-hawling this time, but line-crossing. I loved it, although, like with most holidays, bad things often stay with you more than good. The images and characters (even when stunted) will linger with me: yet essentially glad that I chose this destination-coach, this ice-cream van, this fiction, to dangerous, dubious parts: cantilevered neighbourhood-watches, ghosts and all. (24 Feb 12 1.15 pm gmt)
“…beset by gulls that swept out of the moonlight all together, by the hundreds, as though storming the mainland. Amalia had pitched stones at them, laughing as they shrieked…”
A 19th century shipwreck scenario: Poesque (perhaps Hodgsonian) in rescue-masted extremity even while glimpsing the storybook-sun’s eponymous smile through storm clouds — Hirshbergian, I sense, here, with another eschatology, this time a Catholic confessional one … echoing the feminine “(Like a Lily) in a Flood” inner-narration with this feminine lighthouse-keeper’s inner-tale here. The sea contains its own violently gulping motive-force “playing at recklessness” or with deep meaningful intent – as the feeder-town to the Lighthouse dies like that community surrounding the erstwhile (narrator’s soggy?) Rooff-hatted pier…. and the “Sand convent” of Ligottian (?) dolls as nuns that the lighthouse-keeper collects. These are synergistically, satisfyingly, obliquely tantalising ingredients to the rite-of-repassage of the story’s head-lease narrator (a Lighthouse inspector from the local area who hears the lighthouse-keeper’s inner-narration): surely a great literally chilling ghost story that I should have read before. Like I should have read this author’s work before. Never too late, even at my age. (24 Feb 12 – two hours later)
Perhaps I meant Vernesque rather than Poesque above? (24 Feb 12 – another hour later)
“Even up here, the din bored into their ears, and not only their ears. Ferdinand could feel it drilling into the corners of his eyes, and the top of his skull and the cartilage of his rib cage. / And then there was the exhaust, which he half-believed he could see rippling in the air at the bottom of the escalator. It didn’t exactly float, any more than smog on the horizon did.”
I now feel ordained to have finished my real-time review of the previous story on an upbeat note referring to my current retirement age, all the more now to descend into the utter poignant power of this story: to enter the Transitway. I don’t know if such a place exists in Los Angeles, but judging from this story its existence is stronger by the minute as two friends – just retired from teaching on the same day – celebrate their ‘freedom’ by deciding on a day’s “playing at recklessness” from the previous story; they wilfully absorb, I sense, all the bad ‘smog’ of modern life: whence their loved ones have vanished or are due, like me, to be ordained to vanish – or fade rather than vanish if one doesn’t say: Bring it on. I can’t do justice to this story. It is a dual bonhomie’s high-fiving followed by each of them somehow embracing this book’s erstwhile “great disappointment” – flooding life’s plate with tabasco sauce or wielding the wiffle bat (whatever that is!). I feel like a better person, having just read this story. Read at the optimum moment, for me. (24 Feb 12 – another 3 hours later)
“Balding carpet, yellow-white where the butterfly light barely touched it.”
Many of the previous stories have their own built-in codas; this, for me, is the whole book’s coda. Taking me (whatever rituals I might enact religious, fictional-religious or otherwise) beyond that ‘optimum moment’ which I mentioned above yesterday: taking me into the inevitable ‘great disappointment’ that is life after where I am now today at the age of 64. Yet, yet, yet this story is an effectively chilling ghost story involving children breaching some mock-Narnian nightmare of real genealogical spite and ‘beyond-old-ageness’: surely another classic I’ve discovered by reading this book, seeming to bolster as well as deflate…and, the more I think about it, I’m sure that facing one’s own dark rooms of mixed-motive forgetting – amid the tuk, tuk, tuk of life’s great clock and the supposed venting of air-conditioned links between darkness and light – one prepares oneself all the stronger for what one is about to face in one’s personal life, before long. And, for me, that final ‘Last Balcony’ and its sock-ball game of eschatological absurdism amd mis-faith.
I shall now read the end story-notes for the first time; but, in tune with my life-long interest in the literary theory of the ‘Intentional Fallacy’ (a sort of fallacy so relevant to this book’s fiction in itself), I will surely remain pleased that I did not read these notes beforehand, whatever new food-for-thought they may now provide of hope or despair. (25 Feb 12 – 9.00 am gmt)
[This book has recently been re-issued as an ebook by Ash Tree Press.]