urlSometimes I feel that the city is vanishing from fiction. The books I’ve been reading and reviewing lately have taken place in nowhere towns along highways; or they have taken place in transit, zigzagging from one locale to another, the author never settling in anywhere; or they have focused on interior landscapes, the ‘where’ of the characters’ lives less important than the ‘why.’

For this reason, I read Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky with pleasure. The novel begins as a coming-of-age story, but from there it broadens out, poking around in the dark corners of a city in transition. Midway through my reading, I made a note that the book kept getting bigger as it moved forward, instead of narrowing its focus. I thought this was a flaw. But no—this turns out to be the book’s design.

Happy Rock by Matthew SimmonsThe delicious economy of good short fiction can give you a character in two sentences, a world in a paragraph, or in five words deliver one exquisite detail that captures the gist of an entire story. In his new collection Happy Rock, Matthew Simmons gives us all of these, and over the course of fifteen stories set mostly in rural Michigan, a picture of an author whose loyalties are clearly located among the misfits and mistreated of the upper peninsula of the mainstream.

This is the second installation in a series of “reverse interviews,” wherein the author asks the questions about his own book, and one reader answers.

JENSEN BEACH: The other night my wife and I were reading before bed and she turned to me before she shut out her light and said it had been weird to read my book because she’d lived with the stories in it for so long and it felt strange to see them all mixed up like they were. At first I didn’t really understand what she meant. She told me there little bits in many of the stories that she recognized—things we’d experienced together, stories we’d been told by other people, things I’d said to our kids or to her—and that it had been interesting to see the ways I’d gone about taking that all apart and putting it back together again to fit the fictions in the book.

Brian Conn’s The Fixed Stars is a difficult book, difficultly written. Ulysses. Samuel Beckett. Our literary tradition often revolves around authors of this sort, works of this type, the utter complexity of a book that demands attention, requires it, and makes for itself, in the process, a string of readers as enemies. This is not to say that Conn is Beckett (he isn’t) or that The Fixed Stars is Ulysses (it isn’t) but rather simply to head this review with a reminder to both the reader and myself: sometimes books are difficult.

Charles and Eli Sisters are infamous murderers for hire, and Patrick deWittt’s The Sisters Brothers follows them on what will end up being their final assignment for the Commodore: to hunt down Hermann Kermit Warm, a red-bearded man who has invented a prospector’s dream in the midst of the California gold rush. The premise and the environment and the style are all vehemently western, but deWitt’s second novel takes the western genre to a phenomenally endearing place.

Warning: This review requires honest self-awareness and slight participation from you.

 

Raise your hand if you’ve ever, in your whole life, felt as if you were not pretty or handsome (I haven’t forgotten you, Men).

Some of you are saying, “Well, of course, but isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder anyway?” Others of you aren’t raising your hand at all (Liars). The rest of you have all five fingertips reaching toward the Heavens, screaming “Me! Me!” I hear you, Brothers and Sisters.

Typically, Jesse Ball has a keen penchant for literally leading us in loops, in and out of doors and through buildings and up and down stairs, turning the reader into a steady-cam following a single character through one enormous and complex maze. Ball does this with seeming ease and, for the most part, with entertaining and valuable writing (see his previous novels Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors). Of course the danger in this kind of writing is that the narrative can get so gummy or the book so perpetually interwoven, that the reader is brought to a stop, left standing on the side of a busy street with no crosswalk in sight, confused at where to go next. But just when I was hitting this point in my reading of Ball’s work, The Curfew appeared, and I found myself relaxing back into the former days of Ball’s more poetically inclined work, reminded of how good he is at making emotional leaps. The Curfew didn’t lose me at a single point, didn’t stop me from reading once, and in fact the simplicity of it kept me reading late into the night or when I should have been doing other things – the drive so great that it trumped my daily routines.

Here’s a little secret: I grew up in a small town very similar to the setting for Patricia Ann McNair’s debut collection of loosely linked stories, The Temple of Air. I know those sprawling fields, the quiet starry nights interrupted only by the occasional passing freight train, the speed at which juicy gossip travels, the type of connection you build with someone from being their neighbor your whole life. Small towns are a catch-all for every type of person and McNair shows the variety, no two alike, contrary to the stereotypes. She reaches down deep into the cores of her characters, pulls out their secrets, the things that make them human, and presents them to you in this book.

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (October 2010) –

At the start of October 2010, TNB Fiction Editor Shya Scanlon officially transitioned to a new role as Fiction Reviews Editor.

“This is a great time to be a reader,” Scanlon says. “With big presses going through major transition, more small and independent presses are picking up the slack, and there’s a real deluge of innovative, exciting work being published in a variety of new ways.”

But without traditional gatekeepers, all these new arrivals can be difficult to navigate. That’s why expanded books coverage is more important than ever, especially when it meaningfully includes coverage of non-mainstream presses, authors, and movements.

In addition to providing broad fiction coverage of the best the major houses have to offer, The Nervous Breakdown Fiction Review department is going focus on fiction that deserves public attention but may not have received it otherwise.

Fiction reviewers currently include Dika Lam, Angela Stubbs, John Madera, JP Smith and Richard Thomas. “But we’re always looking for more people to cover all the deserving fiction out there,” says Scanlon.

To contribute to the Fiction Reviews section, please send a query email, in which the project is described, to [email protected]

The same email address may be used by authors or presses who would like to submit work for coverage.