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 April Short Takes

what matters most is how well you walk through the fire
Charles Bukowski
Black Sparrow Press
413 pp.



Charles Bukowski's what matters most is how well you walk through the fire, the first in a series of his previously uncollected poems to be brought out by Black Sparrow Press, does something quite crafty: while presenting itself merely as a collection of posthumously gathered poems (Bukowski died in 1994, at the age of seventy-three), it in fact serves quite well as an autobiography that is told exclusively through poems. The only clue that Black Sparrow Press had such a thing in mind comes from the order in which they place the poems.

Without an introduction or editorial comment, the collection is divided into three parts that fall roughly into three periods. The first section (by far the longest, in terms of years covered) begins with Bukowski's unhappy childhood and carries us through his tough, often hard-scrabble early years as an adult. The childhood poems are among the best in the collection because Bukowski wonderfully captures in them the innocence and the somewhat confusing longing for adult experience (particularly sexual) that marks early adolescence. But he also shows, equally well, a child's bitter discovery that the adult world isn't always pretty (witness "my father's big-time fling," in which Bukowski walks in on his parents arguing over his father's infidelity with "a woman with a large nose"). Bukowski is keenly aware that desire can be dangerous and self-deceiving, and it remains a preoccupying theme throughout the collection.

The second section picks up with Bukowski at the age of fifty. Here, Bukowski is consciously middle-aged and aware of death, but he is unwilling to give up just yet, as he writes in "$180 gone":


I'm not dead yet

yet not dead

I want to see more kneecaps under

tight nylon hose.


He is also, for the first time, experiencing what he calls "minor success" as a writer, and he worries about becoming an entertainer rather than a poet.

By the third section, Bukowski is an old man learning to accept limitations. "[W]aiting on death can be perfectly peaceful," he writes in "odd," and in "a new war," he writes that


not so long ago your night would be just

beginning, but don't lament lost youth:

youth was no wonder either.


He's less flummoxed by injustices and more likely to consider ways to help other less fortunate people, even if he doesn't actually do anything. In a word, he mellows out. And, after a lifetime of hard living, he gets healthier too. By the end of this third section, he's an old man looking at young men and seeing their naivete, their soft inexperience. And he's wholly aware of the change he's undergone from raw, angry youth to--for example--tolerant (though privately fuming) host, as he tells us in "the crowd":


I can't believe they are

sitting here.

I can't believe their words or their


I have no idea why they are here.

I have invited nobody.

I am the husband.

I am to act civilized.

I am to behave like them.

but I will live past them.

this night will not turn me into them.


there was a time when I used to run such

out the door.

but then I would hear over and over

what a beast I had been.


so now I sit with them,

attempt to listen.

I even lend a word now and then.

they have no idea how I feel.


Bukowski is a highly readable poet, with a good ear for rhythm and a strong, clear understanding that, with each poem, he has a story to tell. Occasionally, a poem's last lines don't turn as dramatically as Bukowski might have liked, but what matters most is how well you walk through the fire is a strong, intoxicating collection, and it often shows Bukowski at his best.

--Charlie Onion

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Biting the Moon
Martha Grimes
301 pp.



Readers who have fallen in love with Martha Grimes's whoppingly witty Richard Jury detective novels might be disappointed with her latest effort, Biting the Moon. No corpses pop up in the first chapter, very little alcohol is imbibed, and not a single epigram worthy of Oscar Wilde is spoken. Nor--alas--are there any British pubs in sight. Instead, the novel is set in the American Southwest, and in place of a good detective novel, Grimes gives us a quieter, much less tightly plotted mystery about lost identity.

Here's a quick summary. A girl--she doesn't know her name or exact age, though she appears to be seventeen or so--suddenly wakes up alone in a bed-and-breakfast in the Southwest. She doesn't know how she got there or where she came from. The proprietor tells her that her father has gone out on foot and should return shortly. Instead of waiting for the mystery man who calls himself "Daddy," the girl steals a handgun from the trunk of his Camaro and walks away. Hours later, she is climbing into the wintry mountains in the distance--with six hundred dollars, a few supplies and not a single clue as to who she is or where she's from. Eventually, on a trip into town (she's been living in an abandoned cabin), she meets another girl--almost fourteen years old and likewise orphaned--and the two of them get along well enough for the lost girl (she's named herself Andi) to share her secret. Together, they gather a few promising clues and set out in the family car to track down Andi's "Daddy" in Idaho.

From here, Biting the Moon is essentially a road flick in print. As is often the case with such forms, the novel has a loose, episodic quality, and the girls' rather prosaic dialogue will probably make Jury fans long for a martini and an evening of witty, jaded chatter. Grimes does have a talent for nature descriptions, though, and some passages in Biting the Moon are breathtakingly well-done. But Grimes's leisurely approach to solving Andi's mystery and--perhaps more importantly--Andi's lack of a backstory strong enough to make us care inordinately about her makes this novel rather slow going for readers looking for Grimes's usual fare.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Blonde Like Me: The Roots of the Blonde Myth in Our Culture
Natalia Ilyin
188 pp.



Natalia Ilyin's Blonde Like Me: The Roots of the Blonde Myth in Our Culture is an odd blend: part autobiography (in which Ilyin marks the stages of her life through her hair color(s)) and part mythopoetic / semiotic analysis of what hair--and more specifically, blond hair--means in our society at large.

The autobiographical elements are the most enjoyable, by far. Ilyin has a biting wit ("Tall women are afraid they will hurt short women. I always marvel at the way their tiny hands work"), and she shows a strong talent for presenting amusing, well-drawn characters. Here, for example, is how she describes the modeling school mistress to whom her mother sent her when Ilyin was thirteen and already over six feet tall:


The modeling school mistress, Ms. Luker, was an old model herself, about my mother's age. She had seen too much sun in her perfect youth, and her skin was lined and colorless. She had a size-eight figure, wore yellow pants and white tops, had a double-processed blonde pageboy the color of ginger ale, and smoked cigarettes to keep from eating. She could summon an outgoing, natural-looking smile on command. She was nice to me; she knew I was hopeless.


Now that's a beautifully compressed portrait.

The mythopoetic / semiotic parts are more an acquired taste, I suspect. Ilyin is a little repetitive there (a minor problem that's magnified by the book's brevity), and she sometimes belabors obvious points. (How many times must we be told that the Innocent Blonde is virginal, for example?) A more serious problem lies, I think, in the speed with which she works through a wide range of disparate images and metaphors. Skeptics--and novices to the Joseph Campbell-style of mytho-poetic analysis--may find Ilyin simply moves too quickly at times to be won over.

Still, Ilyin writes with a smooth, calculatedly easy rhythm that makes reading her book effortless. Ilyin's voice in Blonde Like Me is fun and conversational, by turns teasing and conspiratorial, and the skill with which she manipulates her text suggests she's a strong writer from whom we can expect strong work in the future.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Daughter of My People
James Kilgo
303 pp.



James Kilgo's Daughter of My People could be described as a novel of racial manners taking place in the South after the Civil War but before the Civil Rights revolution. It makes me squirm. That is surely Kilgo's intention as he describes an interracial love affair in the South Carolina backcountry.

The first automobiles, vanguards of change, are forcing horses off the rutted roads, but the old racial hierarchy seems secure. Hart Bonner, a white man from a proud old family, falls in love with Jennie, a black servant in a plantation household. Slavery has been abolished for more than a half-century, of course, but in many ways blacks still aren't free to make their own choices. Hart loves Jennie unconditionally and without racial prejudice. Jennie's position is ambiguous. We are made to wonder: is her tenderness toward him love or the solicitude that the protected person feels for her protector? Her feelings are tested when Hart's older brother Tyson makes sexual advances to Jennie. The nature of her dilemma is clear: "Wild panic broke out in Jennie's eyes, the terror of a squirrel unable to decide which way to evade the swooping hawk." Invisible lines are crossed in this caste society on a path that seems to lead inevitably to murder.

It's no surprise that the white males in this book only seem to feel at ease in the woods, away from the complications of race and sex. Kilgo has a fine eye for nature and an outdoorsman's appreciation for hunting and fishing. Here Hart, out hunting, comes across a pair of male turkeys fighting over a hen: "Hart saw two red wattled necks entwined like grapevines that have grown around each other, and for one instant the gobbles seemed suspended in the energy of their beating passion, inches above the ground. He brought the gun to his shoulders and fired."

If you're morally opposed to hunting, you'll find some scenes hard to stomach, particularly one in which Kilgo describes in clinical detail how to skin a deer and cut up the meat. And some of the dialogue makes me uneasy. Black characters, ever mindful that the white man has the upper hand, say things like, "John Earl say best come quick, suh. That mule een bad shape." But then again, Kilgo's gift is to make us feel uneasy when we are confronting racial wrongs too often swept under the carpet.

--Arthur Alexander Parker

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Mr. Darwin's Shooter
Roger McDonald
365 pp.


Syms Covington, the protagonist of Roger McDonald's brilliantly realized historical novel, Mr. Darwin's Shooter, is a mere boy working during the week as a clerk in a leather-merchant's loft and a butcher's assistant at his father's market table on the weekends when a Pied-Piper-like Congregationalist sailor prone to seafaring metaphors shows up and convinces Covington's father to let the boy leave home with him and a group of like-minded youths. The fact that the leather merchant has just shut down operations temporarily because of a plummet in the hides market makes the boy's apparent lack of spiritual inclination seem relatively unimportant, and the father grudgingly gives up his son to the evangelist.

His father's take on Covington's spiritual nature isn't as insightful as the evangelical sailor's, though, and the evangelist's promise of a journey, metaphorical or otherwise, resonates strongly with Covington. Even as a young child, McDonald writes, he had been moved tremendously by Christian, the hero of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (Bunyan was himself a Bedford native, like the Covingtons):


A story tingled his arms to the fingertips and shook his shanks down to his toes with anxiety and restlessness. It was The Pilgrim's Progress that belonged to their town and countryside, telling of a sally away from Bedford in a great undertaking. It was all about walking and peering and finding, coming out from behind trees and passing down narrow rocky paths into darkness and light. It was all a great test for goodness of heart. Obstacles were to be met, most horrendous, and there were dangers of falling into an abyss. Black rivers were to be crossed. Vain and foolish strangers were to be put to rights.


But the seafaring evangelist gives Covington a prescient warning to mind the calling of Jesus ("the only man whom the Great King on High has authorised to lead the fleet in which any of you may serve") "lest in your journey you meet with some that pretend to lead you right."

Of course, the warning is to no avail, for a few years after leaving home, Covington insinuates himself in a job as the shooter and butcher on the then-unknown survey ship, the Beagle. His client is a young, unknown scientist named Charles Darwin, and when Darwin's journey yields an evolutionary theory that threatens to topple Covington's religious beliefs (as well as Darwin's own), Covington finds himself morally...flummoxed. The fact that Darwin, an aristocrat who never exactly befriended his shooter, never acknowledges Covington's role in advancing his research doesn't help either, of course.

McDonald has a conjurer's talent for setting the pace by which he reveals his tale, and Mr. Darwin's Shooter is an exemplar of the historical novel genre. He never shows off his research, yet with a calm authority, he shows us a man's soul, mid-nineteenth century. His ability to draw such a compelling, heartfelt, and ultimately timeless portrait in Covington marks this novel's greatest achievement. And that is a great achievement indeed.

Highly recommended.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Between Father and Son: Family Letters
V.S. Naipaul
Alfred A. Knopf
301 pp.


It is revealing to learn that the idea to collect and publish these letters--which date primarily from 1949 to 1953--is actually contemporaneous with their composition, and that the idea was encouraged by V.S. Naipaul's father, Seepersad. (He even suggested the title Letters Between a Father and Son; it was abbreviated for American publication.) Naipaul was only seventeen when he left his family in Trinidad to attend Oxford University on a highly coveted scholarship, and his father, though in his forties, was still struggling to make his mark as a fiction writer, so one has to wonder what made them think readers would care to read letters exchanged between two merely aspiring writers. If the letters weren't so entertaining, the notion to write with publication in mind would at least show the father's enterprising drive to see print.

It is, in fact, delightful to read letters written by such comfortably confident writers. Even in the midst of family squabbles, money problems and publishing woes, Seepersad and V.S. Naipaul seem to take delight in extended epistolary efforts. (Most parents would kill to receive even V.S.'s shortest letters from their college-bound child.) And the Naipauls do seem to enjoy their ability to complain at length--which, of course, is partly why their letters are so entertaining. Let's face it: reading gossipy, private letters has a voyeuristic quality, and it's great fun to see others engaging in the sorts of garden-variety duplicities we all want to deny engaging in ourselves.

But these letters do have merit beyond mere entertainment, I think, because there is a terrific sense of longing to be published in both father and son, and to read them goading and coaxing each other to write, write, write at all costs is quite moving. Early in the collection, it is the father who advises most authoritatively, but as V.S. gains confidence and meets with some success with short stories, he quietly begins to assert himself in his letters home.

In hindsight, of course, we perceive the son as the writer who 'made it;' Seepersad died in 1953 with only a single published novel to his credit. Thus, to read through the father's letters documenting his short story acceptances and explaining away his rejections as if he were on the verge of breaking through is grimly ironic, and it underlines the curious track our individual fates follow.

--Charlie Onion

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