Dear Abigail and Other Stories and Writing, Written are, arguably, two separate books. That’s what Amazon would say. Ostensibly the late wife in the former is Abigail and the man’s name is Philip while the late wife in the latter is Eleanor and the man’s name is Charles. In truth, these two collections are twin contributions to the canon of late-stage Dixon who has for years deeply and productively lingered on the single theme of writing loss.

 

The stories in both books catalogue Dixon’s grief and yearning in the wake of widowerhood and age. He knows what Donald Barthelme meant when he wrote “Revolves the stage machinery away from me, away from me.” Melancholy and anxiety tint the day-to-day doings of his overlapping stand-ins. He goes to the Y. He takes the dust cover off his typewriter. He puts it back on. He eats sandwiches and drinks coffee at diners. He talks to his daughter (or daughters). He wonders about getting a new girlfriend. He tries to write. He tries to sleep. He dreams about his wife. He writes it down. He remembers when he wrote it down the other day. He writes down remembering writing it down. These aren’t stories in the traditional sense (beginning, middle, end) but sites of feeling which you can visit like monuments. His sentences are organized into obelisks.

Back in the late Sixties, in fact in what came to be known, ironically in restrospect, as the Summer of Love, when I was living in Greenwich Village, I fell in with a guy who called himself a revolutionary. Nicknamed—everyone had a moniker one back then— “Boots,” Pepe was Mexican, and with his stringy scrawny beard resembled Ho Chi Minh. He was short and wiry, not much taller than I was, and magically nimble on his feet—he’d learned foot-fighting when living in California, and tried in vain to pass it on to me, something he’d make me practice on Avenue A at three in the morning. With him it looked like dancing; with me it looked like hell.

Madcap by Jessie Janeshek

 

Often skating on the edge of stream of consciousness, Janeshek’s Madcap is alternately sexual and sulfurous, manic and slyly denunciatory. Recurring images of Hollywood’s Golden Age beauties, modern consumer culture, and desecrated nature yield a complex, compact poetry destined to appeal to the wise, the lonely, and the brave.

 

 

 

 

Science and fiction both ask: how real can our fantasies become?

 

This question sits at the center of Shane Jones’ cool, intricate, and cutting novel, Vincent and Alice and Alice. Divorced Guy Vincent is stuck working his State Job in an only slightly more dystopian America, 2017. (We get a sense of his alienation from Jones’ DeLilloisms–Vincent works in “the Zone” and imagines “a conference call with all of America on it”—while the novel’s Arbitrarily Capitalized Words imply the pervasive influence that unearned and random authority exerts in our corporate and political worlds.) Vincent works a job he hates so he can retire in twenty years. His wife Alice has left him so she can live a meaningful life (she works with refugees). Who could blame her?

The Barbarous Century by Leah Umansky

 

Refreshingly unafraid to explore significant mass-cultural touchpoints like TV’s Mad Men and Game of Thrones, The Barbarous Century is nonetheless an intensely literate collection; one built on a lexicon devoid of pretense or filler. Umansky’s poetry never forgets its debt to the world in which we live; likewise, it demonstrates the capability of a true artist to elevate our perceptions of that world.

Buy it here:

https://www.amazon.com/Barbarous-Century-Leah-Umansky/dp/191247705X

 

 

Like an asteroid from deep space, Roberto Bolaño’s just-published novel The Spirit of Science Fiction, in a sparkling translation by Natasha Wimmer for the Penguin Press, comes without any warning or, for that matter, any background information. But as with the author of The Savage Detectives, One Night in Chile, Distant Star, and 2666, any newly-published Bolaño title is inherently of interest. And this one is especially welcome.

As is so often the case, after an author’s death what comes to light is often what had been cast aside or even forgotten by the writer, of interest only to the scholars. Sometimes, as with Proust’s Jean Santeuil, it has an inherent value; reading that unfinished novel we can see how Proust first attempted a more traditional approach to his novel using much the same material that later went into his masterpiece. All of that would change once he had found his voice, his point of view, and his theme. So I had my doubts when I heard that The Spirit of Science Fiction was forthcoming. I assumed it would be a minor work, a youthful attempt, a series of sketches. It’s anything but that. It turns out that the Bolañoesque universe, style, themes and all, was already formed even as far back as this early work.

America today is more polarized than it’s been at any point in my lifetime. Socially, politically, racially, economically, religiously…in many ways, this division is born of willful ignorance, the result of small minds glorying in hackneyed thoughts and ideas discredited decades, sometimes centuries, before. There is perhaps no one more guilty of this sort of reductive thinking—and of infecting others with itthan Donald Trump, or as Gabino Iglesias refers to him in his dynamic new novel, Coyote Songs, President Pendejo.

Constructed as a sort of literary mosaic, Coyote Songs takes place on either side of the US-Mexico border, the frontera in Spanish. Madness, magic, murder, sadness, loss, and love all dwell within the pages of Coyote Songs, forces struggling to reconcile the ugliness and beauty of life. In the opening chapter, a young boy witnesses a murder while on a fishing trip with his father. Later, witches and saints, goddesses and monsters, heroic criminals and villainous victims all play their parts in a story that owes as much to magical realism as noir.

At first glance it seems a thankless assignment: to write a new Raymond Chandler novel featuring his iconic detective Philip Marlowe. I suppose it would be like taking on a sequel to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” and then you think: what the hell can I do with Gregor Samsa now? Hasn’t he been through enough? I don’t know what Lawrence Osborne’s first thoughts were when the Chandler estate approached him with this opportunity, but, knowing something of his previous novels, I think he’s a most interesting choice for the exercise, and the resulting work makes him seem inevitable.

Prior to this, sequels—or, rather, more properly speaking, new novels featuring the setting and the character of Philip Marlowe—have, with the blessings of the estate, been undertaken by Robert B. Parker and John Banville (writing as his alter-detective-writing-ego Benjamin Black). Now British-born, Bangkok-based Lawrence Osborne has been anointed to tackle this job, but if you know any of Osborne’s novels, the whole idea of it is highly intriguing.

At first glance, Susan Tepper’s novella Monte Carlo Days & Nights seemed on the light side: an American man and woman, she on the north side of her twenties, an attractive Airline “stew,” he a fortyish executive for a music company, on a weeks’ vacation together in Monte Carlo, a place that has always seemed to me as comically ersatz and overblown as Fredonia – though I like Susan’s work, particularly her masterful short fiction.

For me the sense of lightness, however, was quickly dispelled by her control of her means, whatever else she might be up to. In this work she marries the intensity of focus, the crisp delineation and the vivid, but pruned imagery of short fiction, with the unfolding of a novelistic narrative and a long look at character, dovetailing the two in short bits that are somewhat complete in themselves but also serve as chapters in the longer narrative, which for the most part, plays out over their week in Monte Carlo.

“Her heart was not hardened but her skin was thick,” writes Jean-Patrick Manchette of the titular protagonist in his last, unfinished novel, Ivory Pearl, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith with a superb ear for Manchette’s incomparable voice that easily shifts between the grit of the hyperfactual—“…in his right hand he held a semiautomatic Sauer Model 38 chambered in .380 ACP and fitted with a silencer”—and the nimble ability to sketch with the sparest of words the heart of a character, laid out, in this case, in three easy steps: “She wanted to become a professional photographer. She dreamt of meeting Robert Capa. She had an alarming predilection for images of dead bodies.” Ivy is a survivor who at one point casually, almost happily, admits having conveniently lost her appendix when she “caught that Viet round in ‘52.” And like so many other of Manchette’s characters, she also knows her jazz. Everything helps when you’re on a mission.

 

The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro

 

Powered by prose at once enchanting and colloquial, true, vividly-realized characters, and a literary voice that practically reverberates with authority, Fierro’s The Gypsy Moth Summer may not only be this year’s best second novel, but its best book period. Featuring a complex plot, a many-faceted story brimming with insights into people and families at all stages of the life cycle, zoology, myth, and allegory this is the rare beach read that doubles as a novel of ideas.

 

Lawrence Osborne’s characters tend to stumble into things: whether as a result of an accident, as in The Forgiven, or by winning big at the roulette table, as in Hunters in the Dark: as if they had stepped into the intersection of opportunity and desire, and what they heretofore envisaged only nebulously, something that couldn’t be put into words, now possessed a vocabulary and the will to act upon it.

“Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain momma

Take me home, country roads”

-John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

 

If I were partial to the Denver School of Criticism, I might spend hours coming up with pithy sobriquets for Scott McClanahan. I’d call him the Chaucer of Coal Country, Mountain Bukowski, or some other such shite. I’d focus on the stereotyped version of West Virginia many of us carry in our heads, turn McClanahan’s story into a combo of The Outsiders sacking the Sam’s Club snack aisle and life in the U.S.S.R. circa 1983, a place that really wasn’t that bad compared to the coal-dusted, oxy-encrusted, Trumpist mayhem of today’s West Virginia.

 

“I Dug the Hole Already, joseph”

 

My beauty a shovel.

A spoon of aconite and arsenic.

In your mouth refusing food.

To beg instead a stylish garter drama.

Prussic acid gimlet.

Open veins bleed hell.

I’ll ring your bell, son.

I will ring your bell.

–Dena Rash Guzman, Joseph

 

The word “revelation” is a popular superlative in literary circles, popular to the point of overuse. It’s not the only one, of course. There’s an element of hyperbole to criticism, one born of multiple impulses: some noble; some less so. Does the critic desire so passionately to illuminate the art before him that he fails it and his audience, falls back on hyperbole because it conveys at least part of what he means to say? Or does he do it for himself, try to prove his own intellect by overstating the success (or failure) of another person’s art?

It’s hard to imagine anything more terrifying than writing historical fiction. The opportunity to get it wrong, whether the feeling of a place or a time or a person, seems like an insurmountable barrier, before the writing even begins. Creating historical fiction becomes more than simply writing, it becomes research: the reading of books and interviews, listening of transcripts, visiting the locations, trying as best you can to express even a micron of the magic in someone’s life in clumsy, fallible words. Not to mention the issue of the author’s own voice – have they been able to present an accurate depiction of the subject’s life, beyond their own stylistic prejudices? Or worse, has the author merely recited events without the kind of flavor or fervor necessary to engaging reading? It is truly a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, where the very best examples somehow manage to walk the edge of the knife, a strange feat of authorial alchemy that features all these seemingly-contradictory things in perfect balance. To achieve this remarkable result, it helps if the author and the subject share a kind of kinship, where personalities meet across backgrounds, discipline, and centuries to create something simultaneously unique and seamless.