Love and Protest

Amy’s Story by Anna Lawton sets a tempestuous romance against the turbulent half-century of global change that erupted in the 1960s and flowed across the land like a modern Great Flood. The novel plants the seeds of these decades in the post-World War One migration from Europe to the United States and reveals the newest fruits—poison to some, nectar to others—in the closing pages. The private romance and the public turmoil work together to create a story as much about love as it is about progress, about aspiration and success as about longing and loss.

A third conflict, the subtle struggle between the adventurous Amy and childhood friend Stella (with whom she shares a surprising connection) can be summed up in a line: ‘She tried to pull me back and make me think before jumping into action, although my instinct often prevailed.’

At every level the book addresses the question, ‘Where are you from?’ And the structure suggests there is no true answer without first understanding the history that brings you there.

The protagonist arrives in L.A. from Turin as the lover of a charming, if arrogant, Fulbright scholar. Jim is writing an industry-shattering book about Italian film’s influence on Hollywood, an anti-establishment work that will keep him struggling for years to win his place at the table. The pair struggle together; they’re a team; and their struggle occurs at a time when baby boomers around the world are struggling to upend the status quo.

We know the reasons: the war in Vietnam; political assassinations; craven and unstable American leadership; beats and hippies and drugs and music; the push for racial and gender equality. A trip to Mexico during these years reveals the nightmare women endured in the years before Roe v. Wade, a stunning description of the harrowing limits being pushed in the struggle to maintain control over a woman’s own body.

But as her mentor makes plain, not all protestors understand exactly what or why they protest. ‘These kids fill up their mouths with words such as Marxism, Communism, class struggle, revolution, but they don’t even know their true meaning. They lack historical knowledge, never went to the roots.’

The roots he refers to are the ideas from Europe that stitched themselves into the fabric of the American Constitution. And his lesson carries an eerie foretaste of the conformity and demagoguery that duped 46.1% of voting Americans last fall: ‘The ‘mass’… this is one of the favorite words in Marxist parlance because the mass can be easily manipulated. All you need is a charismatic leader, a simplistic doctrine, smart images on posters and banners, and…. A new dogma is born, an absolute truth, and all genuflect to it.’

Continue reading Love and Protest

Miles of Fun, Miles of Files

Paul Panepinto is bored at work. How could he not be? He’s a painter trapped by lapsed policies, cold chocolate in a Federal Funding mug, and long stints of muzak while on hold with Mortgage Depot. Also there are his smarmy daydreams of ‘better times’ with Suzanne Biedertyme to get him through the monotony.

Panepinto works in insurance.

As with most of the office hacks in Michael J. Sahno’s Miles of Files, Panepinto’s silver lining is that he works for not just any insurance company, but for Flambet Insurance. As the name suggests, the place is about to go up in flames.

Enter Graham Woodcock, the British second-in-command to Flambet’s witless heir, James. Woodcock’s embezzling from the company IRA through the phony accounts of non-existent employees Dolores Buenas and Philip Banks.

When Panepinto stumbles across the accounts with a few errant keystrokes, the novel’s central thread is set. Miles of Files is on its way to being a literary PI story focused more on the innocent and the victimized than on the PI or the crook.

Continue reading Miles of Fun, Miles of Files

Murder and the Father of American Diplomacy

We all know Ben Franklin as one of the nation’s earliest Renaissance Men: scientist, printer, writer, businessman, scholar, politician, diplomat. Fireman. In David R. Andresen’s short mystery Murder in a Blue Moon Ben takes a break from his more gentlemanly pursuits, such as chess, to solve a serial murder in Philadelphia.

It’s fall of 1752, the American Experiment still a quarter century from Independence. Constable Geoffrey Hunter turns to his friend over glasses of Madeira to mull the facts of a case involving prostitutes with broken necks and surprised looks on their faces.

The short mystery develops quickly, clues tying the mystery together sparse, the time between each murder so great they go undetected for nearly a decade. The narrative style befits the times. We take our modern P.I. and dial the voice back to the 18th Century. Andresen succeeds at doing this without slowing the yarn or making it stumble:

I’m not known for being a quiet man, but much of my work required discretion and the rest was so much a simple litany of common greed, sin, and sheer folly that I found it best to spare him and me the despair and disgust so many of my duties as Constable entailed.

When our good Constable does unburden his heart of the details of his case,  it requires the author of Poor Richard’s Almanac to put this puzzle together.

An imaginative slice of early American life that’s a tad more lurid than average, Murder in a Blue Moon is a quick, entertaining read.

D. W. Hitman

Warning: the reading police, disguised as the media, have infiltrated the State Department.

Based on a stroll through the Harry Truman building cafeteria, one journalist for The Atlantic pretends to understand our present condition: “As the staffer and I walked among the tables and chairs, people with badges chatted over coffee; one was reading his Kindle.”

Forgive me for not pausing to gasp at the news.

Federal workers everywhere hang badges, like nooses, around their necks. Continue reading D. W. Hitman

From Blogs to Books

answer-coming-soonI surprised a colleague yesterday with the news that his book would be published today. Ironically the title of the work is Answer Coming Soon.

The author, Dan Whitman, believes his books should be left behind on commercial airlines for the next passenger to come along and read. That humble disposition toward his work is exactly what makes his prose so engaging.

I know this because I’m in the middle of his previous release, Blaming No One: Blog Postings on Arts, Letters, Policy. Each of his essays—they are more than blog posts, frankly, such a nasty phrase—is perched on a distinct moment in time and accented by light swats at the folly of man. Except where a heavier blow will do. Continue reading From Blogs to Books

Crook v Crook v Crooked Cop

nothingHardboiled noir fans: Bob Truluck delivers a lot more than promised in The Big Nothing. That’s no backhanded compliment.

The promise includes a vicious series of showdowns, a coterie of sadists and pervs, and a few well-intentioned rubes caught up in a game bigger than the pile they’re after.

The cast of criminals and dirty cops range from two common thieves of dubious mutual allegiance to a pair of sophisticated professionals with international pedigree and wild libidos. There’s the shifty lawyer and his boy-toy lover who play-act sex games of Russian Kapow, and a mothballed old crook bringing up the rear with his neophyte hacker.

Middle of them all is the sad-sack FBI gumshoe and his mysterious handler, who may or may not be running the game: ‘Milky wasn’t even sure what the guy was, if he was armed services, Special Forces, DEA, Secret Service or a fucking spook. Milky’d been led to believe the latter, but found out if you called the CIA joint in Virginia they’d say they didn’t know anyone by that name.’ Continue reading Crook v Crook v Crooked Cop

Writing Prompts, Spellcheck, and Academic Advice

51mb7-k9ztl-_sx331_bo1204203200_There are many, many reasons not to read Flash Fiction Funny while riding public transportation. The first and perhaps best reason is Taylor Mali’s The the Impotence of Proofreading, which will leave you bent over double and wheezing for breath, the workaday passengers all around contemplating the emergency brake at the back of the train.

In examining the pros and cons—mostly the cons—of relying on spell-check, Mali’s story reminds readers that ‘It only does what you tell it to douche. You’re the one with your hand on the mouth going clit, clit, clit. It just goes to show you how embargo one careless clit of the mouth can be.’ Continue reading Writing Prompts, Spellcheck, and Academic Advice

When the Music Is the Trip

journeySpeed-reading fans will rejoice in Ted Prokash’s latest gift to literature, Journey to the Center of the Dream.

Pills, beer, and blow fuel this fast-paced account of a rock band’s tour of 30 cities in five weeks, but even more than the chemical enhancements and a whole lot of weed besides, this epic road trip book thrives on the narrator’s rage: rage at complacency and artlessness, at the general dearth of vision in America, at the plight of artists and the absence of passion and respect for those madmen among us who dare to live their dreams.

In that, the book transcends its debauchery and elevates the whole enterprise to the level of euphoria.

The narrative zips, a trim account of Marlow, Leo, Dante, and Dessy bringing Black Darkness into the bars and basements and empty art spaces of America, small venues that sometimes conjure exactly zero fans. They plug in and strap on anyway, because that’s what you do when the music is the trip.

The pace is a testament to Prokash’s narrative control. One can only imagine the buzz saw it would take to trim the fat off the recollections of an addled mind, jotting notes god-knows-how in the back of a crowded van or while flopping for weeks to sleep on floors and sofas and soiled mattresses in places the like flood-damaged squatter homes of New Orleans. And after grinding off hunks, he appears to have worked with a precision scalpel. So while the principal concern is with the art and artlessness of modern times, the corners into which the music scene has been driven with indignity, Journey is itself a testament to the art of writing, the craft of prose, the channeling of human energy and spirit into a precise tale that informs, entertains, bewilders, inspires, angers, thrills, and so much more.

Part of this joy is in imagining for oneself what sounds Black Darkness conjures in the night. While his rendering of the bands and barkeeps, show promoters and rock devotees, drop-outs, drag-queens, drug abusers, artists, queers and even a few churchgoers in between capture the world he’s running in, Prokash spares few words on the music. His sets are summed up neatly: “We filled that big, empty room with the mournful sound of our souls’ lament” (Baltimore); “‘One, two, three, four…’ The little space exploded in sound and the four of us were engulfed” (Middletown); “We played our shit real cocksure and loose” (NYC); “Black Darkness played to nobody. We played purely for our own glorious gratification. Which isn’t all bad. A good, loud sonic blast will knock the cobwebs out the soul, anyway” (Olympia).

The expression “Living the dream”—usually uttered in grim acquiescence to its irony—seems to have gained a broad fraternity of users in my workaday world. But now these colleagues and others unable to break away from their timecard lives, who can’t for themselves live a bit of the dream, can soak it up here. A modern-day revision of On the Road and Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestJourney calls to mind so many accounts of artists turning vision into reality.

Maybe it all sounded like this.

Slightly more is revealed in this longer review.

Billy Lynn’s Long Thanksgiving Slog

billy_lynn_book_Thanksgiving. The most American day of the year. More American, perhaps, than the Fourth of July.

Throw in a hyperbolically American venue—Texas stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys—and you’ve got Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (also now in theaters).

For the heroes of Bravo squad, barnstorming the U.S. on a brief victory tour to rile up the natives before returning to the front lines of the War on Terror, there is nothing more American than this. Even the stadium concourse reflects Americana: “Your Taco Bells, your Subways, your Pizza Huts and Papa John’s, clouds of hot meaty gases waft from these places and surely it speaks to the genius of American cooking that they all smell pretty much the same. It dawns on him [namesake protagonist Billy Lynn] that Texas stadium is basically a shithole.”

Basically a shithole.

Here’s a grunt deeply scarred by the memory of squatting in the roadside reeds next to his dying buddy, covered in blood, half-wondering if any of it is his, “His bloody hands so slick he finally had to tear open the compression bandage with his teeth.” Yet Texas Stadium’s the shithole.

This early passage about sums up the point of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Not a war novel so much as a warrior’s rebuke of the country he’s fighting for, a blazing satire of patriotism on the home front while the national treasury is raided in pursuit of a wholly unnecessary, errant, distracting war.

“The Catch-22 of the Iraq War”
–Karl Marlantes

It’s an accurate premise but a flawed approach, a long-ass slog covering maybe six present-time hours while the he-roes of Bravo squad (there is no such thing as Bravo squad) sit on their hands and drink with wealthy Texas hot-shots and wait to watch one of the dullest games on earth (football is still better than curling). Long before the end Ben Fountain’s satiric display of Americans at their worst is collapsing under its own weight. Anyone hoping for a better understanding of what the soldiers in Iraq have gone through should choose The Yellow Birds instead. This story tells us what we witness every day: the worst of America.

That isn’t to say Ben Fountain hasn’t got a few sticks of dynamite up his sleeve. There’s magic in the neat line he draws between the game of football and the game of war, the equipment production of a pro football team and war-time’s production of death. “Soon after kickoff Billy intuits the basic futility of seizing ground you can’t control.”

More than his own heroic actions, gunning down the enemy while simultaneously applying pressure to his buddy’s bleeder, that have made Bravo squad the toast of Amurica, Billy’s got Shroom on his mind. Shroom, the magical, mystical figure who embodies the warrior-poet (in contrast to Dime, the tough Sgt. In charge). Shroom foretells his own death and its simple as that: “I’m going down.”

When the grateful citizens meet him, “His ordeal becomes theirs… some sort of mystical transference takes place and its just too much for them… One woman bursts into tears, so shattering is her gratitude. Another asks if we are winning…”

Another grateful American man suggests the proper response: “You and your brother soldiers are preparing the way.” The question is—and we now know the answer—Preparing the way for what, exactly?

Full Review

The Literary Excellence, III

My nominations for The Stephen T. Colbert Award for The Literary Excellence continue. Boy, this effort is really lifting my mood!

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In Preston Lang’s The Sin Tax a female baddy flashes her gun at a male ex-con baddy: “You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get a carry permit in New York. It’s insane. But once they give you one, they’re basically saying they want you to shoot somebody.”

So many major issues from the campaign! Taxes—somebody didn’t pay them. Crime—somebody’s still wriggling on the hook over them. Boy v Girl. Threats of violence. It’s all here.

So, is Janet serious? To protagonist Mark she’s serious as a heart attack:

It was a real gun, small and cold, looking like the smartest guy in the room.

Probably a lot smarter than The Orange One, anyway.

There’s lots of Lang’s best ‘Who’s Hustling Who’ in The Sin Tax, a quest for money, smokes, and—less important—absolution. The petty take’s what matters. Watch it grow from 10’s to 100’s to ever bigger digits. Bigger as in life and death:

Only a psychotic individual would kill a man to make a point to someone as unimportant as Mark… once you erase a man as a form of communication to someone who isn’t even valuable to himself, there’s something very cold running inside of you.

To each his own vendetta in The Sin Tax, where even the winners get a taste the barrel. Let’s just hope our Republic can avoid the same fate.

Anyone who missed Lang’s first two crime paperbacks, The Carrier and The Blind Rooster, ought to jump right in and read The Sin Tax. Hard, straight writing. Contemporary plot. All the author’s wry and unobtrusive observation of human habit.


“Heroes, by buying and reading this book, you’ve proven you get it–and are therefore now members of the nominating committee for The Stephen T. Colbert Award for The Literary Excellence.” Use the medallions below to nominate any book that you feel embodies the values of the Colbert Nation.”

Previous nominees for 2016:

Sterling Johnson—English as a Second F*cking Language
Ted Prokash—The Brothers Connolly