Belle's comic novel, High Maintenance, opens, twenty-six-year-old
Liv Kellerman has left her husband of five years and--perhaps
more depressingly--lost her beautiful Manhattan apartment in
the settlement. With no skills or education to fall back on,
she moves into a depressing walk-up tenement flat and takes a
low-paying job as a reader for a blind judge. The job offers
a few subversive amusements, like stealing office supplies literally
under the judge's nose while striking various 'seductive' poses:
I sat in the library-style chair in front of Jerome's desk
with my legs spread wide apart like a man on the subway. I winked
at him seductively and pursed my lips while he continued to complain
about my spelling.
But that's hardly enough to make up for the abysmal pay or
the judge's awkward advances. And then, fortuitously, Liv finds
the perfect job: selling real estate.
Actually, selling real estate seems inevitable.
It was true you didn't need any skills or an education. If
you grew up in New York and got divorced, it seemed inevitable.
You had to do it. But you usually did something else first. All
the brokers who had shown us apartments had first failed at something
else. One had been an investment banker, one a CPA, one had owned
a consignment shop called Crème de la Crap. I wondered
if it was possible to skip the doing-something-else part and
just go into early partial-retirement as a real estate agent
Besides, Liv tells us: she's got the perfect, pushy New York
personality for it.
But showing fickle couples lofts they don't deserve doesn't
balance Liv's world--any more than having a boyfriend whose proclivity
for biting lands her in a veterinary hospital with a partially
severed ear. How, then, to paraphrase Faulkner (whom the chomping
boyfriend is forever reading), will Liv not only endure but prevail?
High Maintenance is only Belle's second novel (Going
Down--a wonderful title--was her first), and it's surprising
to see a young novelist producing such a polished and tidy book.
But it's clearly a young writer's work, if only because it's
so boundlessly energetic in its pacing and its creative range.
Belle has a special knack for comic rhythms, and her characters
are equally strong.
Highly recommended for a few day's worth of fun beach reading--but
you may not look at the beach property realtor the same way afterwards.
Back to Archived Short
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
must feel awfully alone sometimes.
Time was-since Hector was a pup, as my old philosophy
professor used to say--a serious poet was a big dog in the literary
world, his bark heard far beyond academia's tidy backyard. Pope
and Byron and Wordsworth were hailed as practitioners of the
highest and purest form of literature, if not all of art, attuned
most closely to the whisperings of the muse and the pairing of
the perfect thought to the perfect word.
Is anyone listening now? Modern poetry has few readers. Heaney
himself has said he feels surrounded by ghosts, not only of friends
long gone but of his true peers, poets. Homer is Heaney's brother,
the same as Joseph Brodsky, the late Russian exile and U.S. poet
Paying court to the muse on those terms takes serious purpose,
dedication to craft and, above all, a gift for laughter. Heaney
has all of these, and his latest book of poems, Electric Light,
shows him at home with his peer poets and pot companions (in
the old sense, I mean--the kind you drank with in your teeming
In "Sonnets From Helias," thousands of years are
bracketed in two adroit lines as he tells of a seeing a goatherd
With his goats in the forecourt of the filling station,
Subsisting beyond eclogue and translation.
He puts this deft blending of ancient and modern to more serious
purpose in "Augean Stables," a sonnet spun from the
same cycle. Myths meet headlines for an Irishman who is contemplating
a bas-relief of Hercules preparing to divert a mighty river to
clean the king's stables:
And it was there in Olympia, down among green willows,
The lustral wash and run of river shallows,
That we heard of Sean Brown's murder in the grounds
Of Bellaghy GAA Club. And imagined
Hose-water smashing hard back off the asphalt
In the car park where his athlete's blood ran cold.
Tributes are scattered like laurel leaves to other poets,
particularly W.H. Auden. "Audenesque" does double duty
in this vein. Heaney honors Brodsky in a meter that recalls Auden's
own tribute to William Butler Yeats. Of Brodsky, Heaney writes:
Nose in air, foot to the floor,
Revving English like a car
You hijacked when you robbed its bank
(Russian was your reserve tank).
Amid the (not too solemn) tributes and other deeds of high
purpose, Heaney never forgets that one of a poet's chief duties
is to have fun with language, to scatter "Pinhead words
/ In the thick sable of the universe." In "Bann Valley
Eclogue," I love his picture of an expectant mother
Out for her sunset walk among big round bales.
Heaney can also can take a word that's probably unfamiliar
to the reader and use it so that the meaning is instantly clear
from the context. Describing a baby carriage, he predicts that
"daisies will get fanked up in the spokes." With 'fanked'
so carefully set in place, who needs the dictionary?
While a poet's role in the world may have shrunk, Heaney seems
sure it will not vanish entirely. He may be uttering a prophecy
in "Arion." A poet is riding in a boat, singing to
the sailors while they row. A storm arises and all aboard are
lost, save the poet:
Only I, still singing, washed
Ashore by the long sea-swell, sing on,
A mystery to my poet self,
And safe and sound beneath a rock shelf
Have spread my wet clothes in the sun.
--Arthur Alexander Parker
Back to Archived Short
A Few Corrections
Alfred A. Knopf
improbable this may seem--I were pitching Brad Leithauser's A
Few Corrections as a Hollywood project, I might say (in that
telegraphic haiku style time-pressed producers demand)
Babbitt meets John Barth.
And if I were fishing for a book blurb, I might shout (in
italics, no less)
Brad Leithauser's A Few Corrections gives metafiction
a good name.
It's a damn cunning idea for a novel, after all: open with
an obituary announcing the death (and meager accomplishments)
of a rather nondescript Midwest businessman named Wesley Sultan
and then spend the rest of the novel correcting each of the obituary's
seemingly minor mistakes--his age; the number of his wives and
kids; how and where, exactly, he died, etc.
What we ultimately see, of course, is how secretly interesting
(and perhaps even nobly inspiring) the businessman's life actually
was. It's a nice, revelatory experience which relies, most pointedly,
on the book's narrator acting as a meticulously close reader,
deconstructing and rewriting the obituary in light of his extensive
research efforts. Everything--from the obituary itself to Wes's
high school photos--is analyzed with privileged, seemingly omniscient
information gathered after the fact. Of one high school
photo, the narrator writes that it
might also be misleading about how the two brothers will weather
the years. From the hints of something dandyish yet heedless
in Wesley's looks (note the cigarette dangling from the hand
slung over his brother's shoulder), you might think he will eventually
let himself go, subsiding into a potbellied and short-winded
middle age. Wes looks a little soft beside his younger brother,
whose graduation gown cloaks but does not conceal a sprinter's
supple springiness, a wrestler's compacted reserves of power.
In truth, it's Conrad and not Wesley who will let his body
go--spectacularly. This is all some decades off.
Nothing, in short, is what it seems. Even suburban kitsch
art finds itself surrounded by ironizing, postmodern quote marks:
Adelle sees my glance drift over to the needlepoint sampler
and says, "I suppose you think it's kitsch, don't
you?" and the truth is kitsch isn't a word, or a
concept, I would have expected Adelle to come up with. "But
I like kitsch," she goes on, and the point is obvious
isn't it? That even here, in the De Vries household in Pleasant
Ridge, a suburb of Battle Creek, life is being lived in an atmosphere
of self-conscious irony. Even the woman who lives beside the
needlepoint sampler that says HOME IS WHERE THE HEARTBURN IS
sees herself as gently lampooning the sort of woman who lives
beside a needlepoint sampler that says HOME IS WHERE THE HEARTBURN
But who, precisely, is the narrator himself? And why is he
so curious about Wes's true life? He's not a professional
journalist, after all, sent out, in the style of Citizen Kane,
to find the 'real' Wes. And yet he's going to considerable expense
with his project, flying to Miami to interview Wes's brother
and then to France to interview Wes's first wife (according to
the obituary, that is; in fact, she's his second wife). Inevitably,
the narrator's veiled identity turns his audience into a collection
of close readers themselves, gleaning from the text the little
tidbits Leithauser offers so cunningly. (The parents of the narrator's
ex-wife are from Cuba for example--but what, exactly, do we make
Eventually, a third of the way through the book, the narrator
reveals his identity, thereby lifting the text to a new level
of complexity. But something he says near the end of his account
gets at the heart of what the book and the narrator himself are
all about. Speaking first of himself (in the third person), the
narrator writes that
He's a 36-year-old man prepared to swear that--in the light
of life's overriding darkness--the loss of anybody who once,
in his own local corner of the cosmos, threw off something of
a glow is no small-time tragedy. Prepared, further, to swear,
with the runaway lyricism of someone sipping his third rum-and-Coke,
that some mystical equivalence obtains between all extinguishings
of the light--be it the flare and fade of a supernova or, on
some stump by a Michigan riverbed, a swallowed firefly, glimmering
for an instant in a frog's translucent gullet...
It's a beautiful, non-ironized, existentialist cry against
entropy, and after reading the narrator's full account, it's
impossible to consider A Few Corrections merely an intriguingly
cunning postmodern exercise. This is often a profoundly moving
work, and it's easily the most original novel I've come across
Back to Archived Short
Robert B. Parker
In a sense,
Robert B. Parker's new book, Gunman's Rhapsody, picks
up where his last Spenser novel ((Potshot) left off--only
it doesn't star Spenser and it isn't a mystery. Instead, it borrows
Potshot's setting (the Southwestern desert) and the tone
(taciturn drinking and testosterone-driven, posse-sized shootouts).
While the Spenser series is set in the present, though, Gunman's
Rhapsody travels back to the 1880s and the events surrounding
that touchstone event of the Wild West, the shootout at the OK
Yes, that's right: the OK Corral. As in Wyatt Earp and Doc
Holliday and Bat Masterson.
But this isn't exactly John Ford's My Darling Clementine.
While Parker's laconic (and beautifully drawn) Wyatt Earp could
have been read wonderfully by Henry Fonda, Parker's Wyatt lives
with a whiskey- and laudanum-addled whore he picked up in Dodge,
and his Doc Holliday is a scrawny, washed-up drunk you'd never
mistake for Victor Mature. And the storyline isn't exactly what
Ford offered back in 1946.
This time out, Wyatt's gotten himself in trouble by falling
in love with the Tombstone sheriff's fiancée, and he finds
himself--and his brothers, of course (all for one and one for
all)--caught in a frame-up of the vengeful sheriff's making.
To prove they didn't rob a stagecoach, the Earps will (inevitably)
have to shoot their way to freedom's bright light--and avenge
a few deaths on the way.
Spenser fans shouldn't expect Parker's usual sparkling witticisms
to spout from Gunman's Rhapsody's tough guys. While Parker
has always struck me as the Noel Coward of the detective genre,
his dialogue here is decidedly more understated. But it fits
the characters, and the rhythms are strong (indeed, often remarkably
strong)--and what more should you ask of a great novelist who
knows how to write to his chosen genre?
On a larger level, Gunman's Rhapsody suggests that,
despite their obvious differences, the Western is a close relative
of the detective novel, and it certainly strengthens the notion
that they're both subgenres of gothic fiction. Both, after all,
offer melodramatic battles between good and evil, and both require
their heroes to be immersed at least temporarily in a dark underworld
in order to set the lit world's moral scales aright again.
Indeed, as Parker presents him, Wyatt isn't all that different
from the classic noir detective, at least in the sense that he's
an outsider who observes all but rarely commits openly to a group.
"Wyatt heard everything," Parker writes. "But
he was, as he almost always was, not quite there. Always there
was space around Wyatt." Conversation is particularly dangerous.
For Wyatt as much as for Sam Spade (or Spenser, for that matter),
it's too close a communion, I think. The act of speaking unguardedly
undermines your status as an outsider because it makes your feelings
and thoughts manifest--and being an inscrutable outsider emotionally
detached from society is key to survival, whether you're a possibly
renegade lawman of the nineteenth century or a possibly renegade
private detective of the twentieth. Everything's under control,
the sheriff's fiancée tells Wyatt:
"You don't hate and you don't love and you don't get
mad and you don't get scared. You are a dangerous man, the real
"Maybe I'm not so much like that as you think,"
"Oh, I'm sure you have feelings," she said. "But
they don't run you."
"They might," Wyatt said. "If they were strong
"Lord, God," she said. "That would be something
"It would," Josie said. "Then you would really
It's interesting to watch a great writer like Parker work
outside his standard genre, and it's particularly fascinating
to watch him underline the common thrust behind seemingly disparate
genres. The fact that Gunman's Rhapsody is whoppingly
entertaining in itself doesn't hurt, either.
Back to Archived Short