The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

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JUNE 2010 Issue


Tom McCarthy
(Alfred A. Knopf, September 2010)

C, Tom McCarthy’s captivating new novel, employs a coming of age story to examine sex, death, and technology at the turn of the 20th century.  Though the novel is set in the 1900’s, it’s not a period piece.  The protagonist, Serge, has a wholly contemporary perspective.  He does not believe in heaven and rejects conventional spirituality. He embraces technology, spending much of his youth listening to short wave radio operators broadcasting their thoughts to whoever will listen.

Early on, Serge attends a funeral for a family member.  The centerpiece of the funeral is a device designed to elegantly slide the coffin into a crypt. It fails in a spectacular fashion, reminding Serge of a poorly executed play.  McCarthy deftly captures how technology can overtake emotional moments—solemnity is undone by technology.

Serge serves in the Air Force as an observer, someone who mans the gun of a small aircraft while spotting and calling in the location of artillery.  Even when he is under direct fire, instead of thinking of his own death, he reflects on the beauty of the German plane that shoots him down.  Captured, he takes part in a tunnel digging operation that the prisoners come up with as an escape method.  He enjoys digging because it gives him time to masturbate while alone inside the tunnels. The war becomes a valuable experience for the sensory deprived Serge.  He witnesses death stripped of artifice.  People are alive and then they are dead. Death without ceremony, without coffins.

C is the grand search for an authentic experience in an over-sexed, death obsessed world.  Though never reaching the utter perverseness of, for example, J.G. Ballard, Serge’s sexual escapades become increasingly unsettling.  Sex and death become intertwined in his search for experiences that feel genuinely emotional.  He finds them in cities rich with history: Alexandria and Luxor.  Through the remnants of long gone civilizations, we can relearn love, lust, and survival. 

—Michael Cohn-Geltner

The Queen of Palmyra
Minrose Gwin
(Harper Perennial, 2010)

Centering on the racial turmoil in Mississippi in the early 1960’s, The Queen of Palmyra carries its reader from Millwood, Mississippi in early summer 1963—that fateful summer of Medgar Evars’s assassination—through the destruction and confusion of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Our narrator Florence Forrest “need[s] you to understand how ordinary it all was.” But it—in this case the city of Millwood, the Forrest family, and the tenuous balance of Southern race relations in the 1960’s—doesn’t stay ordinary for long. Jim Crow is everywhere in Millwood from the neighborhoods to the bootleggers, and when Eva Greene, Florence’s teacher and friend, refuses to bow down to the Klan, the novel winds up to one of the more elegantly understated climaxes I’ve read in a long time.

Gwin’s narrator vacillates between youthful precision and childish ham–fisted blunder. On the one hand, while playing in her mother’s bedroom, Florence realizes, “I’d become my girl mother. I’d drink in her thoughts and my mouth would say the things I thought she would have said.” Yet this is still the young girl who can shout, “‘I’m colored! [...] I look colored!’” without completely understanding the harm she inflicts. Much of this can be chalked up to the character’s honest youth and ignorance, but Gwin’s willingness to let Florence understand only enough to keep the narration flowing feels more convenient than true.

Yet to ignore that Florence’s education is the central business of the novel would be unfair to Gwin and her young protagonist. Florence’s relationship to Eva, who fills in the grammatical gaps of Florence’s schooling, is the most critical to the novel’s and Florence’s development. They are on differing sides of the razor, but the blade cuts both of them.

Full of mystery, suspense, love, and learning, The Queen of Palmyra is an intelligent look at the South that is largely gone but not forgotten. Both smart and charming, it will remain in your heart long after it has left your bedside table.

—Jon Dozier-Ezell

A Reliable Wife
Robert Goolrick
(Algonquin, 2010)

Robert Goolrick’s debut novel explores issues of loyalty, desire, and love, detouring into the backstreets of its characters’ former lives and sexual histories. Powerful but lonely Ralph Truitt; deceitful yet surprisingly loyal Catherine Land; and the predictably wild Tony Moretti—quick scenes and fast dialogue convey their past exploits, present interests, and sometimes cruel intentions, all with a sense of cold Midwestern acceptance of circumstances. 

Ralph Truitt places an ad in a newspaper for a “reliable wife,” and instead gets a woman who is reliable only in her determination to gain his wealth for both herself and Tony, a useless boytoy, who also happens to be Truitt’s ex-wife’s illegitimate son.  Ralph repents for a youth of wasted time, money, and love by attempting to save Tony from a future life of regret. All three participate in a history of whoring and deceit—Ralph in the past, Tony in the present, and Catherine with one foot in the past and one in the present.  Both Ralph and Catherine have spent great deals of their respective lives attempting to save women—Emilia and Alice, respectively—who were determined to continue into lives of self-destruction.  Both women stated they hated their saviors, Ralph and Catherine, who continued their salvation efforts despite the lack of appreciation.  Catherine’s repeated admission of her unkindness prefaces her slow murder of Ralph by arsenic, but she is seemingly overcome by kindness, wealth, and affection, leading her to heal him in a matter-of-fact, seemingly guiltless act of nursing.  The ugly, conniving side of life shows our cynical view of self-fulfilling relationships as disposable.  Each character’s pursuit of self-interest blinds them from compassion–whether as a lover, friend, sister, son, or father–that surrounds us on a daily basis. Goolrick shows us the potential of ourselves to become any number of people: a cold, feared, lonely businessman; a distant, selfish lover safe behind his façade as a second-rate musician and playboy; a scheming woman whose plans of deceit are interrupted by true love and compassion.  These individuals attempt to survive the harsh, lonely Midwestern winter, through their reincarnations of themselves.

—Tatiaana L. Laine

In This Alone Impulse | Shya Scanlon (Noemi, 2010)

We are quivering, In This Alone Impulse, we “Go Beside and Speak.” In This Alone Impulse, we find truth, elegant beauty, self-deprecating humor, we are left clutching the pages to our torsos, rolling the words on our tongues, and thinking, “This, this.” This madness, this understanding of humanity, this entirely unique voice belongs to Shya Scanlon.

Scanlon’s work paints consonants like jazz, dotting memory like flash, directly addressing Tony Hoagland (author of What Narcissism Means To Me), fighting with toaster ovens, fighting with fate.

Sixty-eight prose poems pop as if each word were a jazz riff in Shya Scanlon’s In This Alone Impulse, published by Noemi Press. Author of the web sensation “Forecast” and chapbook “Poolsaid,” Scanlon has birthed into the world a finely tuned, closely kept collection singing with life.

From “New York” we are given the moment: “I require less holding.”

Scanlon’s talent snaps salty, smart, quick witted, brilliantly insightful to intimately quiet, and this is where we are met with ourselves.

From “Six Miles South”: “We stopped learning and began to expand.”

Each poem opening illuminates the path we are to walk down with the author, at times, less than softly, but it is the end in each piece which soars with undeniable talent beyond compare. From the section “Rock’n’Roll,” utilizing language technique to create new form, similar to scat (an anomaly in the collection, perhaps why it shines so brightly), the lines we are left savoring: “Be more than, is than. Be a more great beginning. Be stiff as a bored.”

From “Trump”: “I watched the whole thing through a pinhole in your pocket, and still went blind.”

The author, alone and vulnerable, through his confession, provides us comfort. From “Kansas”: “Next time I’ll try to recognize that tiny moment right before turning back.”

An ability to communicate clearly and connect in subtext, Scanlon moves us through his existential want, at times, walking the line between manic and sane, giving up and continuing, but we ultimately are left with hope, told through character if not unique spark. “From A, b, or something”: “We laughed, bled, grew tired of war.”

—Nicolle Elizabeth


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

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