I guess it was Cormac McCarthy who made us all take Westerns seriously again, drawing a line of hard reality around the dusky figures that shaped American expansionism. Louis L’Amour’s romantic visage of the brave American or immigrant caring only of his family, upright figures that respected women, children, God and country; they were always selflessly suicidal in the face of danger. We’ve seen the movies. Well, somewhere along the line we’ve fallen out of love with all that mish-mash.
And while Cormac McCarthy can be just as heartless as his (incredible) villains when portraying his cast of marauders, his grasp of realism and human motivation is uncanny; we flinch at the violence, yet we understand from where it stems.
When I read Liar’s Moon, by Philip Kimball, published by Plume, I was fully expecting just another cheesy portrayal of the West. But what I found was a lushly beautiful portrait of an unforgiving, developing world. This book, published in 1999, maintains the gritty and unabashed realism McCarthy made us love, but somehow manages to give us a little bit of that barely-believable mythology that surrounded many of the old western figures.
The story follows the narratives of several different characters as they all converge. There’s Brother, a wandering preacher in search of his lost brother; Autumn Tallgrass, a young white girl abducted by Indians when she was a little girl, raised as one of their own; Cannonball, a freed slave trying to make a name for himself driving herds and causing havoc (famous first words: ”It was the whiskey made me do it.” [pg. 50]); among others. Each of the characters maintains a unique voice, written with so many little nuances that you can hear the character’s voice in your head as you read along.
That there are two kids raised by wolves thrown in the mix only makes the story that much more intriguing, especially since they’re the ones who tie the all those little stories together.
I definitely recommend checking out this novel–or as the author calls it: “Long Story”–even for those that aren’t big Western fans. It’s an amazing story of America’s sordid adolescence, peppered with more than enough great stories and characters to keep you reading it non-stop. Philip Kimball has a keen ear for style and tone, as well, which makes the read a pure pleasure.
Kimball has one other work that I know of, Harvesting Ballads, which I plan to read very soon.
Now what I was planning on doing was to read a new novel every week or two, bring you new up and coming authors and their new work. However, that has proven impractical as there are few literary novels printed and the ones I’ve been reading are pretty mundane. I’d like to bring you awesomeness on a regular basis, and I am not going to get involved in writing about decent or okay novels because there’s no point in doing that. Instead I will now be bringing to you novels you may have never heard of, or maybe glanced over–the stuff that deserves to be on your summer reading list but isn’t…yet.
And so I bring to you a novel that is probably the most obscure novel I had ever read. I bought it in a used-book shop in D.C. The publisher, Sun and Moon Press, published experimental literature for over 25 years, but closed shop in 2002. If you check out Amazon you can find this novel for sale. On goodreads.com, which lists ratings for every book you could ever dream of, I was only the second person to rate it–on a site with at least hundreds of thousands of avid readers as members.
I bring to your attention this novel because it is perhaps the strangest, most visceral and mind-warping thing I’ve ever read. Forget the slipshod dyspepsia of Naked Lunch–if you’ve read that (rather, were somehow able to complete it) you get a taste of what the insane style in which William S. Burroughs wrote was trying to accomplish that Johnny Stanton somehow perfected. With a laser-sharp focus, and every sentence carrying with it a leaden gravity profuse with mysterious intonations, he brings you into the world of an adolescent Huron Indian, Tarcisius Tandihetsi, who, while traveling with his two fathers (his father,Eustace, and a French priest, Blackrobe) and others in his tribe, are kidnapped by the Poison Snake People and the Killer Yellow Dogs(the tribe’s greatest enemies) and made to endure great torture for days on end.
The story follows the travels of Tarcisius into enemy territory, while he and his fathers, although sustaining ridiculous amounts of punishment that would have killed anybody ten times over, somehow survive time after time to see even greater punishment and danger. As its voice, magic and spirituality impregnate nearly every event or description.
You’ll love this book because it’s creepy and crazy and the most original thing you’ll ever read. While reading this you’ll think at least two to three times per page: “Where the hell does this guy come up with this stuff?” Seriously. If you open the book to any page and pick out a sentence it is likely to be something that would make you scratch your head and wonder …you just wonder. I’m going to do it now–totally random sentence: ”Antler Face was furiously digging his antlers into the ground and at the same time kicking the air.” (Mangled Hands, Johnny Stanton, pg. 162) See? Or: ”Finally Curly Head put my nose between his slimy legs, and the nails on his tail cut my face.” (Mangled Hands, Johnny Stanton, pg.66) There are also certain words you’ll never think of the same way after this novel, such as feathers, manhood, slime, hair, invisible, to name a few.
If you like crazy lit even remotely I say check this out now. You’re brain will hate you for it, but your mind will expand like Tarcisius’s manhood. ”I,Tarcisius Tandihetsi, say so.” (Mangled Hands, Johnny Stanton, pgs. 12, 18, 23, 30, 39, 46, 55, 62, 71, 79, 88, 96, 107, 117, 126, 138, 148, 162, 192, 219, 244, 274, 297, 320)
Read Lowboy by John Wray, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Published earlier this March, 2009, Lowboy is the new novel by John Wray. The premise is explained simply enough: a sixteen-year-old schizophrenic boy abandons his medication and takes a delusion-filled joyride through the subways of Manhattan in order to save the world by having sex with whoever will give it up to him and trying to keep the doubts away so that he can maintain composure long enough to get it from the girl who he’s in love with (maybe) and is weirdly into him all while dodging the police …still with me? Okay, so maybe there’s a little more to it.
The chapters shift between the boy and his pursuers, who are none other than his strange and beautiful mother and a (surprise!) lonely New York City detective. Along the way the boy meets some very interesting characters…imagine hanging around with the lunatics in the New York City subway system, you start to understand. The narrative starts off brief, almost quaint, moving you along just fast enough to keep up suspense and giving you just enough to grab at to keep the book compelling. By the end the narrative begins to shift, as does Lowboy’s mental state, to a frantic and transient mish-mash that can’t be trusted.
Admittedly, the chapters with Lowboy’s mother and the detective are a little less than exciting when you’re waiting to get back to the regressive thrills of inter-subway tunnel exploration. You’d also be surprised how squirmy Wray can make a love scene between a pubescent white boy and a street-wizened crackhead. I found myself shamelessly giggling. I really grew to like Lowboy, too, pulling for him to get laid so that he’d save the world.
All in all, it’s a pretty good book. I recommend it for a quick easy read when you want a break from your Iliad or Naked Lunch, ahem. In the future I’d like to see John Wray avoid the sordid temptation of tying in generic detective-genre analyze-and-pursue themes. Other than that it’s easy to see why in more than a few places he’d been referred to as a promising young writer.