Monday, April 16, 2018

Lawn Boy: The Struggle Is Real!

I love Jonathan Evison novels because they're about people vastly underrepresented in fiction — people who are able to keep a sense of humor and self-deprecation despite how much life can kick them while they're down. Evison (The Revised Fundamentals of CaregivingThis Is Your Life Harriet Chance, and more) is a charming, funny writer who really understands people of all walks of life. And that shines through in his empathy for his characters.

In his new novel, Lawn Boy, his protagonist is Michael Muñoz is a 22-year-old landscaper. Mike is stuck on the bottom run of society's ladder, but fighting hard to climb up. He lives with his mother and his older developmentally disabled brother — their father skedaddled when Mike was a kid. But not before truly traumatizing him by telling him he'd take him to Disneyland, driving him to a parking lot, and telling him "Hm, they must've moved it." So Mike is used to disappointment.

One of the things that immediately endears you to Mike is that he truly enjoys being a landscaper — he has a really talent for topiary. He takes pride in a profession society sort of deems a job for folks on the lower-tier. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have big dreams — for instance, he plans to write the Great American Landscaping Novel. If you need another reason to like Mike: He's also an avid reader, getting recommendations from his new friend Andrew, a librarian at his local branch. (Andrew steers him clear of "MFA fiction" — Evison, a proud graduate of the "school of life," delights in pointing out how "MFA fiction" is overwrought and boring.)

So spends his time Mike hanging out with his neanderthal buddy Nick who berates him for his crappy fantasy football team. Mike also harbors a crush on a cute waitress named Remy, which seems to go awry when his brother throws a salt shaker at her. The novel follows Mike as he lives the ups and downs of life in a society where he can't seem to catch a break...or can catch a break, but it always ends up being a mirage, or he's swept up in the whims and wheelings of other people. For instance, when Mike loses his landscaping job, a rich but shady dude named Chaz hires Mike to assemble bobbleheads at a factory, and grooms him to take over a new business — but Mike has no idea what it is or if it's even real. Then, he thinks he finally has a piece of good luck when he runs into a former grade school friend named Goble who's made it big selling real estate and hires Mike to landscape some big rich properties. But it soon becomes clear that Goble has had to sell his soul to sell real estate, and if Mike wants to hitch his wagon, he'll have to kill his conscience as well.

The difference between the haves and have nots, the privileged and not, is never more in stark contrast than Evison sets them in this novel. If you're a Mike Munoz — born without a silver spoon and unwilling to compromise your morals — is the willingness to work hard really enough to make it in this society that is so obviously stacked against you? Maybe, maybe not. But it's only when Mike begins to fully understand who and what he is and who and what he cares about that he starts to see the world more clearly.

These little moments of catharsis and lessons learned in Evison's novels are one of my favorite parts of his writing, as well. He makes you feel good about his characters — that they've learned lessons and have found how to be happy. And that in turn makes you happy as well. Evison doesn't always get it his dialogue exactly right and you may sort of scratch your head about a strand of plot here and there, but for the most part, Lawn Boy, like the rest of Evison's work, is a great example of a story that deals with a tough issue but when it's overcome, your faith in humanity is restored for having read about it.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Madness Is Better Than Defeat: Mayhem in the Jungle

Ned Beauman writes some of the zaniest, funniest novels I've ever read, and his newest — Madness Is Better Than Defeat — might be his zaniest, funniest, and best yet. It's the story of a temple in Honduras, and CIA agents, and shadowy secret organizations, and drugs, and Hollywood, and newspapers in the golden age of journalism, and ex-Nazis, and titans of industry, and the nature of memory, and so so so much more. I loved it, despite its un-summarize-able plot. I mean, you don't read a Ned Beauman novel and expect a straight line. Indeed, the opening scene of this novel takes place in an underground speakeasy where people are betting on a guy wrestling an octopus underwater — which (and of course Beauman knows what he's doing here) is a beautifully apt metaphor for this novel. Just when a tentacle of plot starts to make sense, another one appears to smack it down.

Beauman novels have a plot logic all their own — you just have to accept that not everything is going to make complete sense. Things just happen, sometimes loosed of logic (though they usually wind up making sense later on...but sometimes not). Beauman his own unique way of tying his twisted plot together — and believe me, there are a ton of strings to bind.

And so, the basic premise in this novel is two competing expeditions embark into the jungles of Honduras in 1938 to find an old Indian temple. A CIA agent who is telling this story 20-plus years later becomes enmeshed in these expeditions for wacky reasons. We first see him looking through a CIA warehouse in the late 1950s looking for evidence he thinks will clear him of some crime, though we don't know what that is or what he's looking for, or even how the hell he's involved with the temple expeditions. But it all becomes slowly clear-ish.

Scared off? Don't be — just be fairly warned. I fully admit Beauman is a bit of an acquired taste. I made the mistake of recommending two of his other novels, Glow and The Teleportation Accident, both of which I really loved, to just about everyone I knew. Then I was disappointed when many of those people that read them wondered if I'd lost my damn mind.

This, like his previous work, is an incredibly funny, clever novel — I just love his writing. He has no qualms about spending a page-long digression just to set up a one-line joke. He has no problem breaking the fourth wall, and then having his characters joking about breaking the fourth wall — meta on top of meta! And his wandering eye catches everything. It's easy to compare him to Pynchon for his non-sensical plots and general goofiness, but I also like to think of him as similar to David Foster Wallace in how he observes and then relates the world he's created, and also how he mixes the low- and high-brow. It took me more than three weeks to read this because I really wanted to take it slow and digest as much of this as I could. It's a spectacularly inventive book, and I highly recommend it...if you're brave.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

King Zeno: What A Time To Be Alive In New Orleans

In 1918 New Orleans, a serial killer gruesomely hacked his victims to death with an axe he often stole from the victims themselves. The so-called Axeman of New Orleans was never apprehended. Meanwhile, construction was just beginning on a massive canal connecting Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, bisecting New Orleans's Ninth Ward. A Spanish Flu outbreak in the city killed several thousand residents. A new form of music called jas (or jazz, as it's known now) floated through the air. And rumblings from Washington about efforts to enact Prohibition threatened to prevent the good times from rolling. (The Volstead Act passed the next year, in October 1919.)

What a time to be alive! If you like your historical fiction with a healthy dose of real-life, then Nathaniel Rich's new novel King Zeno is just the book for you.

Rich's novel takes advantages of this rich confluence of historical events in a city known for its richness of culture and tells the stories of three characters whose lives all intersect and influence each other. A poor black jazz musician named Isadore Zeno works on the canal and tries to provide for his family. The rich widow of a gangster attempts to go straight, making the canal project her last dirty deal. And a New Orleans detective and World War I veteran is tangled up trying to solve the horrific axe murders while dealing with his own demons.

These characters are as well-drawn and fully realized as the historical detail itself. One of the craziest, best parts of the novel involves the character Zeno, and is based on a real event. To try to jumpstart his failing jazz career, he writes a letter to the newspaper purporting to be the Axeman, and threatens to kill more people unless all the rich white people in the Garden District hire a jazz band for a party on a Tuesday night. Unbelievably (except that, again, this really happened!), the newspaper prints the letter and there's a big citywide party.

I loved this book, not the least because I love New Orleans. But Rich is a magnificently talented writer, clever an super fun to read. And he tells this story at a near breakneck pace. There's sex, and booze, and rock'n'rollish (JAZZ!). Highly recommended!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Changeling (Review): A Genre-Defying Modern Fairy Tale

There are novels that defy easy categorization...and then there's The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle. This novel is nuts, in the best possible way. It's basically a modern fairy tale about how our parents either mess us up or send us out adequately prepared to deal with the world. That's a massive oversimplification for this massively entertaining novel, but it's the gist.

It starts mundanely enough — with a boy meets girl story. Apollo Kagwa, New Yorker, meets, falls in love with, and marries, a librarian named Emma. Soon, they have a child — delivered on a subway train during a power outage (a near-mythological birth!)— they name Brian, after Apollo's father. This is odd, though, because Apollo's father abandoned he and his mother when Apollo was four. But he left behind a children's picture book he used to read to Apollo depicting a fairy tale where a child is stolen by a goblin. This is foreshadowing at its finest.

Emma and Apollo begin having marital problems which culminate in....boy, you just have to read this to find out what happens. Suffice it to say, their baby disappears, and Apollo spends the rest of the novel — an odyssey through New York City, to a mysterious island inhabited by women and finally to the only forest in New York City, a park in Queens — trying to find his child and his wife.

This novel is so cleverly written, incorporating tropes from myths (I mean, dude's name is Apollo, for one), to fairy tales (bread crumbs, evil parents, etc.), to even Biblical themes (which of course, depending on your own beliefs, may actually just be myth as well). But this is novel thoroughly modern — there's bits here cautioning about privacy issues with social media, specifically, and the potential dangers of technology, generally. These parts are a nice juxtaposition with Apollo's profession of used book dealer. Indeed, it's through his job — selling a first-edition, signed To Kill A Mockingbird — that he meets the mysterious William, who becomes a major part of what happens.

As things get weirder and Apollo is less and less sure about everything he thought he knew about reality, the novel gets increasingly violent as well. Apollo is sort of tested to the lengths of his own humanity. What will he be willing to do to save his child?

I loved this book - it's really unlike anything I've ever read. It didn't garner too much attention when it was published last June, but it's showed up on several "Underrated Books of the Year" lists, including this one from Bookstr. If you want to read something wholly unique, check out this terrific book!

Monday, January 8, 2018

The End Of The World Running Club (Review): There Is No Finish Line

There are lots of reason to take up running. To lose weight. To feel better, etc. I started running a couple years ago because I desperately needed to do something to stem the tide of quickly approaching middle age. But if you're Ed Hill of Scotland, you start running because if you ever want to see your family again, you have 500 miles to cover and only three weeks to do it... (Cue dramatic movie trailer music...) And oh yeah, it's the apocalypse!

That's the juicy setup for Adrian J. Walker's novel The End of the World Running Club, a story of Ed's fight for survival traversing the British Isle after civilization has been basically destroyed by a massive meteor shower.

Ed's kind of schmuck, frankly. He's a bad father, a worse husband, and is nursing a worsening drinking problem. So, to him, an apocalypse might not be the worst thing in the world. He's just about had enough anyway:
"The truth is I was tired of it all. I was tired of the clamor and the din of the world that made less sense by the day and a life that had me just where it wanted. The truth is that the end of the world, for me at least, came as a relief."
That's not a super cheery sentiment (though I did kind of laugh when I read those lines — it's not too much of a stretch these days to root for the end of the world, or at least a huge change to how things are now, right?), and it doesn't exactly put you in Ed's corner. He's not your traditional hero of the apocalypse, that's for sure.

But so, a series of events result in Ed being separated from his family, and we learn that evacuation boats are leaving from the southern tip of England with his family on Christmas day — 21 days hence.

So Ed starts running. He's not sure why. It's not a conscious decision. And he's never done it before. He just needs to run. With a crew of four others, Ed begins making his way south through a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape.

The thing I enjoyed most about this novel (and why I picked it up in the first place) is Ed's thoughts on running. Before the meteors hit, and life was normal, Ed had admitted he'd been lazy — that his kids had been a valid justification in his mind not to have the time or energy to work out. And not only that, but he'd also hated runners because he thought they were just showing off, rubbing it in his face with their long strides as he stood outside a pub smoking a cigarette. They are fit and in shape and he's a fat dumb drunk. I loved that part — I had similar thoughts about runners (usually while standing outside a bar smoking a cigarette, often while day-drinking) before I started running. And even post-apocalypse, when Ed starts running, he still hates it, it's still draining. It takes a while for him to break through the proverbial wall and embrace running.

Even if you're not a runner and could care less about running, there's still plenty here to keep you interested. It's also a novel about how people — both good and evil — deal with the apocalypse, and how it makes them more good or more evil. Ed and his crew encounter several other survivors, both friends and foes, as they traverse the country. Some help, some don't. And Walker's pace is breakneck, things move along rather quickly.

So this was a fun read — it freshens up the post-apocalyptic thriller genre just a bit. There's plenty that's familiar, but turning this into kind of a running novel was a neat take.