As I’ve harped about before, my biggest gripe with contemporary novels is that they sometimes don’t finish what they start. They can begin with a certain level of craft, story-telling, writerly attention–whatever you want to call it–and end up in 10 or 25 or 50 pages something less than that. I notice this more in novels from big commercial publishers, but it’s hardly an exclusive club. This sudden slip down the chasm of mediocrity seemingly can happen in any new book, by any publisher, at any time.

I don’t choose this pet-peeve lightly. I choose it because I’m a careful (okay, slow) reader, and I really don’t want to waste my time on a novel that starts out strong and finishes weak. There are so many worthy novels out there, and getting me to page 100 of yours only to have you phone it in makes me resentful towards you. You’ve already gotten my money and my attention once–I’m not going to be a repeat customer.

This is why I make a point of trumpeting novels that deliver what they promise from page one, and I’d like to trumpet Currency by Zoe Zolbrod.

Currency is about two characters, Robin, a young American female ex-pat who bounces around Southeast Asia maxxing out credit cards and searching for direction; and Piv, her attractive Thai boyfriend with big if not very clear plans of someday succeeding in America. Both of them find a temporary solution to their problems in Abu, a Kenyan trafficker of endangered animals and animal-related products (like rhino tusks) across international borders.

What’s refreshing about Currency is how directly Zolbrod nails both of these characters. I loved Robin, who perfectly exudes the wanderlust that leads so many Westerners to Southeast Asia. Through Robin, Zolbrod offers her reader a great window into backpacker life, like when she enters a Bangkok restaurant called the Hello Guest House:

Robin knew she preferred the cozier places with interesting decor or local haunts that didn’t pander to Western tastes, that she liked to escape the backpacker throng. And there was no other way to describe the patrons who sat within the three grubby yellow walls here. They all wore more or less faded flaps of colored cotton. Their floppy day packs hung from the flaps of their chairs, and Lonely Planet guide books and plates of half-eaten pancakes dotted the tables. Everyone’s age seemed all wrong. The limb of men poked out of boys who otherwise looked so young that they gave the place a freshman dorm feel, their pink ankles and wrists like puttied plastic, while impish patchwork caps sat atop faces creased into middle age by years of sun and drugs. This is where I want to stay? Robin thought….But even as she tried to scoff, she knew that the tourist flim-flam was a harbinger of better, deeper, richer things.

The beautiful part of traveling internationally, in my limited and lately dormant experience, is to see how other cultures differ from your own, but just as relevant is to see how other cultures are strikingly similar to your own. This is how I felt when reading about Robin and Piv’s foray to Piv’s parent’s home in rural Thailand. Robin’s discomfort around Piv’s family–combined with Piv’s obliviousness to her discomfort–struck me as both real and familiar. Piv, who disappears from the house one morning leaving Robin to fend for herself against Piv’s passive-aggressive mom, seems genuinely unaware of the shaky position he’s left Robin in.

Piv came in with a joyful face, with a happy gait, with a bag of fruit.

“You sleep this morning, wow!” he said.

“Where’ve you been?” Robin asked. But he was already talking to his mother, holding up fruits Robin had never seen before–some brown and bulbous, some hairy. Grudgingly, his mother accepted a rust-colored pod from him, sniffed the skin, nodded, then took the bag.

“I told her tonight I take her to restaurant, very good one, in town.”

“Piv, I’ve just been waiting here. I’ve been up over and hour. Where have you been?”

“I rode the motorbike into town. I told you my father has that. You’ll go too. Today we’ll go ride.”

“You couldn’t have waited?”

It’s refreshing to think that the self-absorption of the young and good looking is not just an American trait but much the same halfway around the world.

If I hesitated before buying Currency, it was because I wasn’t necessarily interested in reading a novel about animal trafficking, and I’m grateful to say that Currency isn’t The Great Novel of Rhino Tusks we’ve all been hearing about. The elements of animal trafficking in the book are never relevant in their own terms but only for what they can reveal about the Robin and Piv. One of my favorite scenes is where Robin gets caught in Singapore with illegal contraband. Zolbrod draws out this scene expertly, ratcheting up the drama with each successive sentence, as a customs officer uncovers what Robin is hiding in her suitcase.

The officer reached in farther and drew out an oversized ziplock bag. He held it in front of his face just as Robin once had. There were the horns: two earthy curves spooning; two massive, stacked apostrophes that had previously signified ownership. It’s nothing, Robin thought, steeling herself. She supposed she could feign surprise, but the effort seemed impossible. It’s nothing, she wanted to tell the man who opened the bag, sniffed, then set it on his opposite palm and lifted to test its weight. His face didn’t change as he rubbed the horns through the plastic, sniffed again, then reached in to scratch the surface.

We feel Robin caught in a game she can hardly admit she’s playing, and this incident later forces her hand against Piv and the nebulous organization that recruited them.

How much more interesting and relevant would contemporary literature be if Backpacker Lit had its own section at your local bookstore? Lost summers in Peru, ex-pats in Prague, traveling India by train on a shoestring. Perhaps I’m dreaming. But if a Backpacker Lit section ever should exist, Currency will surely be one of its pillars.

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ART EDWARDS's third novel, Badge (2014), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's Literary Contest for 2011. His second novel, Ghost Notes, released on his own imprint Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, has been made into a feature film. His writing has or will appear in The Writer, Writers' Journal and Pear Noir!, and online at Salon, The Los Angeles Review, Word Riot, The Collagist, PANK, JMWW, Bartleby Snopes, The Rumpus and The Weeklings. In the 1990s he was co-founder, co-songwriter and bass player with the Refreshments.

19 responses to “A Review of Currency by Zoe Zolbrod”

  1. This is a lovely, intelligent review, Art! Thanks!

  2. One-tenth would be a generous, optimistic estimate of how much money Other Voices Books has to spend, Art, ha. I mean, I don’t know for sure what GOON SQUAD’s budget was, but I’m guessing we generally put out our titles on about one-fiftieth of that budget. I mean, I really dug GOON SQUAD, so that’s not a dig on Jennifer Egan, whose writing I really respect . . . but the fact that indies are putting out such quality books, like Zoe’s, on such a fraction of the corporate houses’ budgets, is certainly significant in a variety of ways and implications, yes.

  3. Don Mitchell says:

    Months ago I had an exchange with Zoe about how she decided to render non-English speakers speaking of English.

    I picked up Currency not long after that, and I think she nailed it.

    Great job, Zoe, and not just for that reason.

    • Art Edwards says:

      So true, Don. Piv’s voice is wonderful. And so male. Not in any kind of unga-bunga way but in the subtleties and contradictions that might make up a character like him. I’m not sure I can explain it, but Zoe renders it.

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    A little while back, I had the privilege of reading alongside Zoe at a TNB event. I told myself I’d pick up Currency as soon as I had the change. Thanks for the reminder to do so!

  5. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    This thoughtful, positive review makes me want to pick a copy of this book, especially since I share your pet peeve with novels that are riveting out of the gate, but fall to pieces after 100 pages. As you said, these books seems to be coming with increasing frequency, from both big and small publishers, who cater to buyers not readers, who were sold on the opening pages. It’s as though the notion of repeat customers is willingly ignored. So thanks for bringing attention to a work that’s in for the long haul.

  6. Gloria says:

    This is a really great interview. I love it very much. This book sounds so interesting.

    I would absolutely haunt the shelves of backpacker lit at the bookstore. Can I tell you about the time that I ate a Chinese restaurant deep in the bowels of non-tourist Rome? Jesus…

    Thanks, Art!

  7. Greg Olear says:

    Your review prompted me to read the book, which I’ve been intending to read for awhile. CURRENCY is terrific, as you suggest.

    Two more thoughts:

    First, the book looks great. Gorgeous cover art, beautifully bound.

    Second — and this speaks to one of the earlier comments, I think — whenever a male writer writes from a female POV, and does it well, we are quick to applaud him. So let’s do it when the shoe is on the other foot. I think Zoe writes masterfully from a male POV. Piv is so engaging, so vibrant, I forgot he wasn’t actually the one talking.

    Anyway, great review, Art.

  8. […] events in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago; featured me as an author on the site; posted a excellent review of Currency a few months later; gave me a reason to write a couple nonfiction features that […]

  9. […] it not getting the attention of A Visit from the Goon Squad, Zolbrod’s debut novel Currency seriously rocks. Lyngstad was always in the shadow of Faltskog, even though Lyngstad seriously […]

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