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NC Lit Talent On ParadeCL Carolina Writers Night brings McCorkle, Gurganus and more

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Now in its 11th year, the Public Library of Mecklenburg County's Novello Festival of Reading has become one of the most anticipated festivals of its kind in the United States. Over the years, Novello has become known for drawing big-name authors like Toni Morrison, Tom Clancy, Pat Conroy, Norman Mailer and Frank McCourt. Not so coincidentally, since 1994, Creative Loafing has presented Carolina Writers Night, an annual informal evening of free readings by some of the Carolinas' finest writers, in an attempt to shine light on some of our own substantial homegrown talent. In 1996, Carolina Writers Night became part of the Novello Festival, a partnership that will once again bring together a stellar selection of writers for the city's bookhounds (the event is co-sponsored this year by the Novello Festival Press). Carolina Writers Night is free, but it's often standing room only, so be forewarned and get there early.

This year, our salute to some of the Carolinas' finest literary talent will take place from 7:30pm to 9:30pm Monday at the Great Aunt Stella Center. This year's featured writers are Jill McCorkle, who will read from Creatures of Habit, her new collection of short stories; Joseph Bathanti, who will read from his novel East Liberty (winner of the 2001 Carolina Novel Award); and Allan Gurganus, who will read from his new collection of four novellas The Practical Heart.

In addition, the Novello Festival Press will feature local writers who have been published by the library's own publishing house, including former CWN reader poet Dorothy Perry Thompson, Observer columnist Doug Robarchek, memoirist Tom Peacock and more (see sidebar).

Jill McCorkle is the author of eight books of fiction, including Creatures of Habit, her latest collection of short stories, which is reviewed in this issue. A native of Lumberton, NC, McCorkle holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina and an MFA from the Hollins College Masters Program in Writing. She is an instructor in creative writing at both Duke and UNC. Five of McCorkle's books have been named to the New York Times Book Review's "Notable Books of the Year" list, and all of her novels have achieved widespread international distribution.

Joseph Bathanti came to North Carolina in 1976 as a volunteer for VISTA, working with prison inmates. Twenty-five years later, Bathanti is now an instructor at Mitchell Community College in Statesville and at Appalachian State University in Boone. An award-winning playwright, Bathanti has published several books of acclaimed poetry, as well as numerous short pieces. He has been a NC Arts Council Touring Artist, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Award in both short fiction and the essay. Bathanti's first novel, East Liberty was published by Banks Channel Books this month, and is reviewed in this issue. The book is based on Bathanti's experiences growing up fatherless in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Italian-American Pittsburgh.

A native of Rocky Mount, Allan Gurganus is most famously the author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which has since been adapted into a television movie and a stage production. He is also the author of two short story collections, 1991's White People: Stories and Novellas and The Practical Heart, published last month by Knopf. Gurganus, who now lives outside of Carrboro, NC, originally planned to be a painter before serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War. During his tour of duty, he says he read almost 1,200 books and conceived the initial concept for Widow. Gurganus later studied at Sarah Lawrence College and at the Iowa Writers' Workshop under Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Cheever. He is interviewed elsewhere in this issue.

 


Tell All
Allan Gurganus unveils his impractical heart

By Joe E. Jeffreys

You can tell a lot about a person by the jokes he makes. Take Allan Gurganus, author of the best-selling Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. While discussing his new book, The Practical Heart, Gurganus answers the question, "What is your greatest fear?" with a joke.

"What is a faggot?" And then without missing a beat, answers, "A distinguished gentleman friend of the family who has just left the room."

His reply is quintessential Gurganus, slightly crude, a little off-beat, but delivered with enough Southern Charm to guarantee that no offense is intended. After all, it was Gurganus whose second novel, Plays Well With Others, about the effect of AIDS on a group of friends in New York City, was both roundly praised and criticized for the often laugh-out-loud manner in which it dealt with its subject matter.

The Practical Heart is no less bold. Gurganus' newest book is a series of four distinct novellas all set in the mythical small town of Falls, NC. The quartet, as the author explains them, tell the stories of "people who wander beyond the sign that says 'No Lifeguard on Duty.' They are about the sinners, the people who live in their own way, in some cases racially, in some cases sexually, in some cases aesthetically: people who know how to follow the rules and who prefer not. All the novellas are about those people with impractical hearts who have to be practical to defend them."

Gurganus sees the novella as the perfect form for our time and talks about it like a novel with Attention Deficit Disorder. "One of my mentors, Peter Taylor, used to say that a novella is a work of fiction that you can pick up after dinner and have finished it by bedtime. I think that's the way we live and read now, between doing things."

The novella also has other advantages, as Gurganus sees it:

"Sometimes the compression and speed of the short story form does not allow for enough complication and wiggle room. The novella has the amplitude and sense of leisure that the novel provides but it also has the arrow swiftness we look for in short stories."

The collection's novellas amply demonstrate Gurganus' range of interests and voices as a writer, as well as his considerable skills as a storyteller.

The title novella concerns a spinster Aunt who may or may not have been painted by John Singer Sargent. "Preservation News" is written as a newsletter memoir by a woman about her friend, a rabid local historian and architectural conservationist who died of AIDS. "Saint Monster" is about a little boy who places Bibles in backwoods motel rooms with his homely father while, at home, Mom has an affair with the handsome town veterinarian.

The collection's most arresting novella, "He's One, Too," is about a pre-teen boy who feels up his country club-father's golf buddy. It's sort of an up-market J.T. LeRoy fable filled with intergenerational sexual entanglements.

Gurganus credits his ability to write about such topics with dignity to his long history of being an openly gay writer. "It's allowed me to explore things that would be completely off limits to a conventional heterosexual writer," says Gurganus.

Born and raised in Rocky Mount, Gurganus, 53, attended art school before being drafted into the Vietnam War. He tried to stay out of the war but "in Edgecombe County, NC there had never been a conscientious objector applicant before and they threw it away."

So he joined the Navy, where he spent many hours in the on-board library reading voraciously and writing short pieces in the styles of authors he admired like Dickens, Austen and Beckett. After the Navy, he gave up painting and studied with authors Grace Paley and John Cheever. In fact, it was Cheever who Gurganus was romantically though not sexually involved with, who boosted his career by secretly submitting and having approved for publication in The New Yorker one of his early short stories.

Gurganus moved to NYC in 1979 and published Confederate Widow in 1989. It eventually became a quadruple Emmy-winning film with Donald Sutherland and Cicely Tyson. AIDS soon made Gurganus a veteran caregiver in a second war and he moved back to North Carolina in 1993 where he lives today in Hillsborough, a small town outside Chapel Hill, and is restoring an old house. He describes it as "Victorian/Arts & Crafts cusp."

"It suits me," he says of his smalltown life now. "I have a garden and I get fewer frivolous phone calls from magazines in the 212 area asking me things like, 'If you could take a pasta to a desert island what would it be?'"

Although he's a recent inductee into The Fellowship of Southern Writers, Gurganus feels that being an openly gay writer has hindered his career in some ways.

"I think that if I were married to a potter named Sarah and had a boy named Brendan and a girl named Beatrice my standing would probably be somewhat higher on the literary pantheon than it is now. I made a choice. In the long run I think my value as a writer and my career will be immeasurably enhanced because I think I can treat gay and straight people fairly. I'm not a gay writer in the sense that I've never written about straight people. I find pathos in both camps. I wouldn't do anything different."

Between significant others, he is at work on his autobiography and the sequel to Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Part of what he calls the "Falls trilogy," The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church will explore Falls Baptist Church from the 1870s through the 1970s when it becomes a failed TV ministry.

A veteran at least twice over, with the publication of The Practical Heart, his fourth book, Gurganus also clearly becomes a veteran writer. In explaining his joke about entering the room a gentleman but leaving a faggot, he says "Some part of me is still seven years old and afraid to go on the playground."

As his new book makes lucid, Gurganus has conquered the literary playground, so tell us another.

Allan Gurganus will read from his work and sign books at the Novello Festival's Creative Loafing Carolina Writers Night, Monday, October 22 at 7:30pm at the Great Aunt Stella Center. The event is free. Creatures of Habit: Stories by Jill McCorkle. (Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 240 pages, $22.95)

 


 

Hominids and Other Animals

By Mary Kratt

If Jill McCorkle wrote it and Shannon Ravenel chose it, the story has to be good. Not just good. Outstanding. Wickedly funny and wry. True as a ticket to your most desired destination. Human as underwear. Wise as a woman who has seen it all and lived to tell.

One story, "Dogs" leaps from the first line, "If I were a dog, I would have been put down by nowl" This one was my favorite, a wry, witty hoot about a woman who owns a dog kennel and translates the world in terms of dogs and their owners. One client, a man, she sized up instantly, "I knew he had a lot more in mind for me than pulling off ticks. . .I'm sorry to say I smelled the desire on him and I do have to also say that at first meeting I was kind of turned on. Let's just say if you've never gotten right up in a pit bull's face, you might be curious."

She has it down to a science, "I can look a a person and tell you immediately by looks and personality what breed that person would be. . .if Marilyn Monroe had been a bitch, she'd have been a yellow Lab. They'd have dressed her up like a poodle again and again but deep down she was definitely a Lab and who better for a Lab to hook up with than a fella with balls."

McCorkle worked in a kennel in college. She feels "a person insecure and fearful is likely ­ metaphorically speaking ­ to lunge and bite. A mother whose child is threatened will, too. . .And isn't our notion of networking just a fancy form of tail sniffing?"

These aren't stories about animals, although creatures of one sort of another are a thematic emblem in each of this round dozen of stories with animals' names as titles (Snipe, Chickens, Turtles), except for "Hominids," which points without subtlety to the creaturely nature of men and women.

"Hominids" starts with a spunky impromptu speech a wife makes at a golf weekend of guys who bring their wives or significant others. Tired of trash talk about women, she calmly declares, "I'm thinking I will have myself a restaurant known as Peckers, and as my model I will use Hooters, where one of Bill's buddies likes to go on Friday night. I will have a woodpecker instead of an owl and waiters instead of waitresses. They will wear uniforms that are, shall I say, a bit revealing below the belt and as manager my job will be saying who looks good in the outfit and who doesn't. . .You don't see animals making fun of breasts and udders. I doubt if it happens in Third World countries either." She says this while the women in the other room talk about peonies and weddings.

In "Cats," the female narrator is reminded of cats' famous roaming habits by the sound of her former husband's key in the lock of her house which he left 12 years before. He roamed and left and married and created another family on the other side of town, but now at age 60 with early dementia, he wanders back to his deserted wife's home and tries to get in.

"And every time the wife came after him her eyes seemed to say This is supposed to be your life. Did her eyes also say Do you want him back?"

What could be stranger or stronger? But McCorkle has many touching characters so real you are sure you just met them on your way into the post office, overheard them at McDonald's, or remember from the town you grew up in, like the witch woman who lives down the block, whose husband hung himself. McCorkle speaks for her and tells in the story "Monkeys" how this ordinary woman got labeled and taunted by neighborhood kids who needed something to fear.

Most engaging is the lead story, "Billy Goats," which follows a group of neighborhood kids, light-headed, prowling on their bikes in a pack in the gathering summer dark of familiar streets.

"The grown-ups looked so silly framed in their living-room and kitchen windows," parents who talked of "depression and loss, of how spoiled and lucky their children were these days. 'We will never be that way,' we said, 'we will never say those things.'" But they do.

McCorkle captures the wonders and loose zaniness of childhood ("I had a contest with myself to see how many times I could call time service before the minute elapsed.") But, looking back, she wishes most for the phone call that can connect her back to those old places and to the people she remembers, and those who died. She wishes to be a stage director who could "call for lights to come on in every house in town and for every person who had ever lived there to step outside and take a long deep breath on this average summer night."

McCorkle can flat out write. She is the prizewinning author of seven works of fiction including five novels, five of which have been named New York Times notable books. The Lumberton, NC native now lives near Boston and has taught writing at the University of North Carolina, Bennington College, Tufts University, and Harvard.

For those who look for distinctive voice and insight and laughter, McCorkle is sure to please. This latest collection of creature stories leaves us to ponder how close to animals and their ways we are. Shannon Ravenel, the editor who has annually chosen and anthologized the best southern stories nationwide, who helped pick the incredible array of writers (including Clyde Edgerton, Kaye Gibbons) first discovered by Algonquin Books, has another winner here in this Shannon Ravenel Book from Algonquin.

Get the Jill McCorkle habit. It will spark your life.

Mary Kratt is a Charlotte author of books of poetry and history.

East Liberty by Joseph Bathanti (Banks Channel Books, 208 pages, $2l.95)

 


Everyone's Gone To The Movies

By Irene Blair Honeycutt

In The End of the Road, one of John Barth's characters states that "everyone is. . .the hero of his own life story. . .Fiction isn't a lie at all, but a true representation of the distortion that everyone makes of life."

Such is the fabric of Joseph Bathanti's debut novel, East Liberty, winner of the Carolina Novel Award. Bathanti, who is also an award-winning playwright and poet, brings his poetic strengths to bear in this coming-of-age story in which the central character, Bobby Renzo, struggles to make sense of life in a world where his main escape is through the movies he and his mother, Francene, watch on television during the 50s and 60s.

No surprise, then, that Bobby compares real-life people to movie stars and baseball stars. If art (story) has the power to change life, then all is not lost. Bobby's retreats into fantasy and into movies provide flickers of hope that he can actually exercise some control over the direction of his life. He comes to equate baseball with God and fantasizes about becoming a baseball player so that he can provide a better life for his mother and "buy a father."

Bathanti, at his best, beautifully orchestrates the plot towards one of the most poignant endings I've ever read. Watching a silent film of Bobby's Confirmation, I am entranced. There is a shadowy sense that some mysterious presence is hovering compassionately over the scene ­ a presence I felt throughout the novel. The book leaves me wanting to rent Route 66, set out peanut clusters and nonpareils, and watch a Lincoln Avenue episode with Bobby and Francene. All because Bathanti, with masterful Malamudian strokes, creates a world of magical realism. Bobby struggles against his secret desire to become a priest, wears the heavy mantle of guilt, does penance for his sins: stealing a baseball bat from Sears; making his grandmother, Nonna, so angry that she throws pasta onto the floor; informing a Sister that his closest friend, Mickey, a "truly gifted artist," has drawn pictures of a naked woman. He becomes guilt personified as he watches Sister Gertrude beat Mickey "with a Calvinistic fury." After Mickey experiences a life-altering tragedy, Bobby's sense of betrayal propels him to flog himself 20 times with a sumac branch. The limitations of his surroundings and the severity of his "role models" have taught him well that "you are called to answer for every trespass." Wherever he turns, his world uses "the wheel-chaired cripple, the drunken vagrant, the cleft palate, the amputee," as parables: "Step out of line, and something bad happens to you."

It's difficult to read this novel without wincing in pain at the insensitivies of the adults even though they clearly have their own crosses to bear. Still, it's hard to imagine that Francene or Nonna don't notice Bobby's limp after he has stepped on a nail. Enmeshed in their own webs of pain, they can't even set aside their conflicts to celebrate Christmas in a joyful spirit: Nonna has already thrown the pasta onto the floor in a rage by the time Francene arrives late for Christmas Eve dinner. The tension beneath the surface is deeply felt by Bobby who knows it has something to do with his father. Bewildered, Bobby watches Nonna throw the Christmas tree into the street.

Religion offers its mystical balm. At Christmas Midnight Mass, Bobby loses his pain in the beauty of the sacred atmosphere, thinking it's "like being in a movie. Not like we were being filmed, but that we were the movie being watched by real people somewhere as if we had become make-believe, the whole church and all the people inside it perfected inside one of those water-filled paperweights that swirl with snow when turned upside down. Wanting it to last forever, I simply sit there and let it wash over me, the entire church flickering with candlelight, incense and Latin carols like stuttering celluloid, frame by hypnotic frame. . ."

Bathanti fleshes out Bobby's character into someone who is precocious, inventive, mischievous. As a child he scavenges, finding his first baseball glove the "summer between first and second grades on the roof of Goodwin's garages." He uses "a cracked bat, nailed back together," and baseballs that he has retrieved from a sewer. He learns "the mystery of catching" when he plays in a parched weed lot between garages. Like a modern-day Huck Finn traversing the shorelines, Bobby discovers class distinctions in the contrasts between his neighborhood and that of Caddy Grounds in Highland Park where the outfield grows grass and has "real bases instead of rocks or. . .cardboard." If good works get you to heaven, he thinks, then the people who have houses with gables and sod lawns and lawn jockeys are already there.

Bobby pushes the boundaries of his existence and returns wiser for having taken his journey into the Hollow where his true mettle is tested: this is the forbidden place, the place Nonna calls "Buh-sha-wa-lone. . .with the accent like a sledgehammer on the first syllable." There, in the "last pittance of wilderness, a few unclaimed acres in the heart of the neighborhood," Bobby loses his innocence. Like Huck, he becomes keenly aware of the cruelties and injustices in this world; and, similar to Huck, with conscience quickened, he can prove heroic. Bobby is a street-smart survivor who can outwit a gang and run like Bill Mazeroski, his favorite baseball player, whenever he feels he's being pursued by a "lynch mob" or by "Spacaluccio," the monster Francene says is just a story "made up by crazy Italians to scare their children."

Growing up without the presence of his father (Francene has forbidden him to ask questions about who his father is!), the boy scrutinizes each man she brings home as a "suspect" ­ the possible father he longs to have. Waking from a nightmare, he laments: "What is the endearment for a father one has never known? ­ I have no name for him."

Some of the most endearing moments in the book show Bobby and Francene spreading out the bridge mix, pistachios and nonpareils and settling in to watch TV movies starring Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, James Stewart. By age five, he's already absorbing Francene's outlook: ". . .they (the movies) capture for her the essence of what she thinks her lost life has been about. For me they do the same. I develop a nostalgia for things I have never experienced, as if my existence is already memorialized in celluloid and I can never reenter it. In my own life I do not always know what to feel, but I feel deeply what I see on screen. . ."

His world-view has been clearly shaped by the films he devours:

"I simply can't get over William Bendix losing his leg in Lifeboat, or how those people fell upon the German sailor and threw him overboard. People are duplicitous like the townfolk in High Noon. Deranged like Charles Boyer in Gaslight. Unimaginably brave like Gunga Din. These are good stories, and I view them as morality tales, like the OT and Jesus's parables."

Bathanti's language croons, mourns, consoles, ridicules and laughs, rising above the occasional wooden lines which at times read more like a documentary than that of the voice of a boy growing up in a row house on one-way Prince Street in East Liberty, Pennsylvania, before moving to a brick duplex on Lincoln Avenue.

This is a "bouncy" read, at first, because the fused first-person point of view often seems too elevated for Bobby's age and experience and sends me scrambling to figure out how old he is or scratching my head during one of his bursts of eloquence. Observe, for example, how Bobby in grand literary style elaborates on the proximity of the duplex to the church and the hospital and then casually drops back to a more natural style to reveal how he disposes of his baby teeth: ". . .the refrains of my life are bells and sirens, hearses and ambulances, cassocks and caskets, the impenetrable black stone of silence and solitude. . . As I begin losing my baby teeth, instead of placing them under my pillow for my fairy Godmother, I take them out to the trolley tracks running past our house and lay them on the rails to be powdered."

Reading such juxtapositions, I made a conscious decision to accept them and to move on with the reading. Why? Because the fusions make me think and because the imaginative leaps and risks Bathanti takes stylistically and metaphorically ultimately create a compelling atmosphere and a believable character that melts into my heart.

Throughout the novel, Bobby wrestles with dark angels and wonders why no one calls him "darling" and why he is taught not to cry in front of anyone. By contrast, he sees "movie people aren't ashamed of their love. In A Farewell to Arms, Gary Cooper kneels at the deathbed of Helen Hayes and weeps openly until Francene leaves the room."

As the boy's loneliness intensifies, Bathanti paints a deeply compassionate scene where Bobby finally allows himself to pour out his anguish in front of his mother, sending Francene crumpling onto the floor to embrace him while he weeps ­ a loving, Pieta-type image. I hope for a sequel from this fine author.

Irene Honeycutt is a poet and the director of the CPCC Spring Literary Festival.

Joseph Bathanti will read from East Liberty as part of the Novello Festival's Creative Loafing Carolina Writers Night, Monday, October 22 at the Great Aunt Stella Center. The event is free.

Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001 edited by Nick Hornby (Da Capo Press, 352 pp, $14)

 


Take My Band. . .Please

By Fred Mills

A telling theme runs throughout the second annual Da Capo-sponsored rock-'em/sock-'em battle of the critics. It's subtle, but significant just the same, one hinted at in the introduction penned by Nick Hornby.

Writes Hornby, "Most pop music is pretty funny, most of it unwittingly so, and therefore jokes about it are not only advisable but vital. Who else is going to laugh at the pomposity of pop music, its self-importance and narcissism and its eye-popping idiocies?"

That Hornby would be this year's guest editor isn't coincidental. Currently the pop music columnist for The New Yorker, he wrote High Fidelity, a love letter to obsessive-compulsive record collectors that got turned into a fairly decent John Cusack vehicle last year. That flick, along with ex-Rolling Stone boy wonder Cameron Crowe's filmic love letter to rock culture Almost Famous and critic Jim DeRogatis' Lester Bangs bio Let It Blurt, helped earn a rock culture-fixated 2000 the tender sobriquet "The Year Geek Broke." To answer Hornby's question in Clintonese, It's the critics, stupid!

Look no further than the Da Capo book's opening essay, "The Rock Snob's Dictionary." A kind of nudge-nudge/wink-wink compendium of names and terms put together for Vanity Fair by Steven Daly, David Kamp and Bob Mack, it purports to give the average I-could-give-a-shit-about-how-influential-Big-Star-was layman a leg up in deciphering crit-speak. Everything from Alt.country ("self-righteous rock-country hybrid") and Lo-fi ("by artists too musically incompetent and undisciplined to record crafted, finished music") to Captain Beefheart ("Trout Mask Replica's brilliance will reveal itself after you've listened to it 6,000 times") and Zimmy ("nickname for Bob Dylan, favored by shut-in Dylanologists") get barbecued. Most of the entries, however, are rendered so dryly as to be plucked directly from legit guides, suggesting that whatever yuks the three authors shared, they also can lay claim to a fair measure of insider status.

But as some wag once observed, if writing about music is as meaningful as dancing about architecture, then doesn't that make the musicians schmucks, too? Chicago Sun-Times critic DeRogatis thinks so, and in the mildly hysterical "Third Eye Blind" he is actually confronted by the object of his derision, TEB vocalist Stephan Jenkins, who takes DeRogatis to task for a series of scathing reviews. DeRogatis calls the band "ham-fisted." Jenkins replies, "The only thing ham-fisted here is your writing." DeRogatis shoots back, "Thanks. Subtlety is overrated anyway; I like people who say what they mean." The confrontation brings to mind two incidents from this publication's dark past. The first came when, after CLprinted the lyrics to Mojo Nixon's "Don Henley Must Die" in a Music Menu item, the Great Sensitive Man Himself phoned to complain. That Henley would take time out from his busy schedule was flattering enough. But later, when a member of .38 Special rang up to thank us for what he thought was a thumbs-up on their upcoming show ("the musical equivalent of licking spilled beer off a concrete club floor"), well, that went beyond flattery ­ it was a friggin' imprimatur. Irony, it seems, is best wielded by rockcrits.

This fact is lost on neither Mike Saunders ("Disney Dreams Up the Best Radio Station in 30 Years," Village Voice) nor Gilbert Garcia ("The Tao of Esteban," Phoenix New Times). The former article appears on the surface to play the anti-teenpop card by "pretending" to actually like Backstreet Boys and corporatization, then in a nice stroke of reverse irony also manages to contextualize and pay homage to the teen-driven AM airwaves of yesteryear.

Garcia's piece chronicles the improbable ascent of flamenco guitarist-cum-easy listening schlockmeister Esteban, in the process bringing together several disparate strands: an insular music scene's petty jealousy towards a local success story, the bizarre synergy between QVC marketing and the housewife demographic, and how a musician who dresses like Zorro defiantly and serenely pursues his Velvet Elvis-like Segovian muse. (The week after the New Times article ran, the paper's letters section was crammed to Jerry Kleinian proportions with pro- and anti-Esteban missives.)

Other highlights among the 27 essays: "Inappropriate Tactics" (Open Letters) by Robbie Fulks, a musician (see: "Alt.country" above), who vividly bemoans his self-employment status in the midst of an IRS audit while serving as the rule-proving exception to the foregoing irony comments. Eric Boehlert's "Invisible Man: Eminem" (Salon.com) refreshingly dwells not upon the Free Speech vs. Decency debate but instead reports on how critics covered the controversy. Who watches the watchers, indeed! Rian Malan's Rolling Stone piece about the tangled history of the song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", titled "In The Jungle," weds passion to research and should be required reading for any budding music scholar. Plus, assorted famous pundits (Greil Marcus on Sleater-Kinney; Anthony DeCurtis on Johnny Cash) and lesser-knowns (David Rakoff on Barbra Streisand's farewell concerts; Jonathan Lethem on the Go-Betweens' reunion), all of whom manage, in varying degrees, to echo the words of a character in Almost Famous: "Did you ever love something so much it hurts?"

Lester Bangs' old drinking buddy Richard Meltzer, however, turns out to be the book's conscience, and his "Third Spud From the Sun: Cameron Crowe Then and Now" (Chicago Reader) a de facto love letter to music critics whom he calls spuds. It's possible he's just being ironic. No matter. Concludes Meltzer, following a lengthy anti-Crowe harangue, "SPUDS. They're there to keep the rest of us honest. So don't fall down on the job, y'hear?"

True story: The same day the Da Capo book landed on my desk I received a phone call from a friend whose 16-year-old daughter writes for a school newspaper, saw Almost Famous and now wants to be a rock critic. Is there a book or career guide, she inquired? Like, say, how to pull together punk, bluegrass and Krautrock in a 250-word review? How to interview the dork from Third Eye Blind? How to calibrate your internal bullshit meter so you can tell the difference between celebrity journalism and criticism that's from the heart?

I flashed back to myself at 16, planted in my bedroom poring over copies of Creem, Fusion and Crawdaddy. Then I replied, "Let's get her a few good anthologies of classic music writing. Heck, the Bangs bio too. This kind of stuff can't be taught. It's gotta be absorbed."

Fred Mills is the former music editor for Creative Loafing, as well as editor of Magnet and a widely published music writer nationwide.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (Knopf, 208 pages, $18)

Sewing Up the Wounds of Revolution
By Bruce G. Nims

Though freedom of speech is hardly a reality in the so-called New China, no Chinese person with whom I spoke during my visit to that country in 1996 had any problem referring to the Cultural Revolution with anything but shame and distaste. From 1966 to 1976, Chairman Mao Zedong, China's revolutionary leader since 1949, essentially gave over government power to a small clique led by his wife to institute a radical socialist leveling of Chinese society. This inner circle, who became known as the infamous "Gang of Four," organized an army of youths ­ the Red Guards ­ to purge China of anything that smacked of the aristocratic or bourgeois. The fanatical campaign that resulted destroyed untold numbers of priceless cultural artifacts and attempted to eradicate any vestiges of "foreign capitalist influence." The Red Guards also subjected educated Chinese people to rituals of public humiliation, as well as relocation to the countryside for forced labor, which would supposedly "re-educate" the "bourgeois intellectuals" into a proper appreciation of the virtuous peasantry, uninfected by the dangers of literacy and independent thought.

Dai Sijie, an expatriate Chinese victim of the Cultural Revolution presently living in France, has written a new novel, just translated from the French, telling the story of two teenagers swept into this horrific program in the early 1970s. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, as one might expect, gives a vivid picture of the suffering and injustice of this mad, destructive period in Chinese history. What gives this slim novel its genuine appeal, though, is the almost magical way in which it draws comedy and romance out of such oppressive circumstances and illustrates the events in utterly convincing detail.

The narrator and his friend Luo have been relocated to a small peasant commune on Phoenix Mountain, deep in the rural countryside of Szechuan province. They live in a house built on stilts above a pig sty and have to carry pails of sloshing excrement up narrow dangerous trails for use as fertilizer in high altitude fields. Because they're the children of prominent physicians and a famous dentist respectively, their chances of ever being released from this condition of quasi-slavery seem slim.

The young men prove resourceful, however, and use their creativity and wits to marginally improve their condition. The village headman, a former opium grower now converted into a Communist functionary, becomes fascinated with a little crowing rooster alarm clock in their possession, and insists that it be used to wake up the village for work. They then parlay this obsession on the part of the vulgar ruffian to get permission occasionally to visit the largest local town to see the bad North Korean propaganda movies that seem to be the only acceptable entertainment. They then reenact the stories for the illiterate villagers.

With these modest opportunities, the narrator and Luo can move about freely enough to make contact with the two truly liberating sources of pleasure named in the novel's title. They get to know the most attractive girl in the area, the daughter of the region's tailor, and they also discover a precious cache of forbidden French novels in Chinese translation in the possession of another youth who is also being re-educated nearby. Luo's romance with the tailor's daughter, the Little Seamstress, is both an erotic and emotional adventure for the young people, with serious consequences and ironic twists. The comic machinations the teenagers use to gain access to the books, not to mention the powerful impression that such literature has on their naive and impressionable minds, produce a complex meta-narrative in which the French characters, particularly the Count of Monte Cristo, gradually infiltrate the story.

The effect and the genre of this poignant and absorbing novel are difficult to categorize; the closest I can come is pathetic comedy. The uncompromising presentation of ignorance, filth, and political oppression is definitely disturbing, but the exuberant humanity of all the characters, even the least appealing ones, reminds us that the human comedy is the true leveling force that connects people from all cultures. It's impossible for any reader not to laugh as the two protagonists, clumsily disguised as party cadres, try to con "genuine peasant songs" out a drunken miller in his lice-infested hovel. They also manage to improvise a dentist's drill out of a manual sewing machine to simultaneously treat the headman's toothache and punish him for his abuse.

Tyranny can suppress much, but as Dai Sijie proves here, vibrant imagination, a sense of humor, and youthful love have an unquenchable power to heal and amuse.

Dr. Bruce G. Nims is a poet, essayist, and Assistant Dean at the University of South Carolina in Lancaster, SC.

Flying Sparks (Growing Up On The Edge Of Las Vegas) by Odette Larson (Verso, 192 pages, $23)

 


It's A Hard Knock Life
By David Childers

There is a common notion about human nature that we start with innocence and progress toward non-innocence or even corruption. Thus, Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden, Lucifer is cast into hellfire; and in our own American culture, foreign wars, the death of a president, and now the horror of September 11, 2001 are stages in a journey away from innocence.

Against this natural tendency, there are some who remain innocent, even after the worst; but there are others who seem to be born without a trace of it, as if they've learned from past lives the wisdom and inevitability of corruption. The narrator of Flying Sparks(Growing Up On The Edge of Las Vegas) is a hybrid of the two: an informed innocent.

This memoir of a young girl growing up in Las Vegas in the 1960s doesn't spend much time in the familiar Las Vegas of casinos and floorshows. Instead, it's set in the small city, pre-boom Las Vegas that many called "home" ­ neighborhoods, small businesses, schools, outlying ranches and desert communities. While the Rat Pack were making their own history in the seats of pleasure, Odette Larson was growing up across town in a small city no different from other small cities of the time except for the vast and mysterious desert that spreads out around the city. It is here that the girl finds hope and peace, a place where she can ride horses with her friends, limited only by the horizon and the heat.

Her own home isn't a happy place; her parents are loving but also brutal, administering harsh punishment for small offenses, eventually sending the narrator away to a convent, and then a mental institution. Ironically, but not surprising, some of the worst things happen to her when she's sent to places that are supposed to help or reform her; but the outside world also provides its own share of pain.

Physical and psychological violence, drug use, and sexual abuse are common in Odette's world. Early in the book, the pre-teen narrator and another girl are sexually abused by a close family friend while visiting him at his ranch; later she is raped by a black cowboy she and her brothers have met and become friends with while exploring the desert around Las Vegas. Not long after that, she and another girl whom she has just met while walking down the street, are abducted by a gang of boys, taken to the desert and raped.

Running away from home leads to a convent; running away from the convent leads to a mental institution. In the mental institution she becomes the girlfriend of a violent criminal and breaks out with him. After a failed robbery attempt, her boyfriend winds up in police custody and she winds up homeless on the streets of Oakland, California. While in Oakland, she is first held hostage by a drug addict, rescued, and then drifts between different men until she winds up going home.

All of this happens before she is 12 years old. That remarkable fact is overshadowed by the way she bounces back from these atrocities, maintains a hopeful innocence, and doesn't allow bitterness, blame or anger to infect the narrative.

Odette Larson writes with an easy, direct style that concentrates on telling a story she knows, and trying not to make more of it than it is. It would have been tempting to try to bootstrap this story into a metaphor for the changes and losses America experienced in the 60s.

Thankfully, that doesn't happen ­ probably because this character, in many ways like the dismemebered optimist in Nathaneal West's A Cool Million, is universal. She could be found along the by-ways of medieval Europe as well as the atomic desert of Nevada.

There is much pain and horror in this story, but there is also much that's beautiful, inspiring, and heartfelt. Descriptions of the desert are especially poignant and come from an obviously inspired writer:

"The desert's surface, sculpted by wind, is the arid holding ground of change, a composite of mountains beat to rock, ground to sediment, washed from hills by rain turned into flash floods that carve paths forming gulches and gullies whose walls expose layers of earth. Within each layer are stories of change, within each story. . .keys. . .answers to questions. . .how it was. . .what made it like it is. . .what elements it shares with other terrain. . .what will become of it?

"My life evolved like the desert. Sculpted on the surface by winds of change. Ripped open in places by floods of events leaving layers of stories trapped in the rubble of time.

"I was raised like a mountain squeezed into the sky by compression. All that was not rock hard slowly eroded to be replaced by newly shattered parts, the erosion and rising occuring simultaneously."

There is not a satisfying end to this story. The girl goes home with a cloud of guilt and confusion surrounding her. There is less of hope in it than determination to survive, and the fingerpointing which was avoided through the whole narrative begins to surface, but only briefly.

Regardless of its disappointing finish, getting to the end of this book was easy, and the final impression is one of admiration for any and all of us who can take the worst life can hand out, shake it off, and get back up.

David Childers is a singer, songwriter, poet and attorney.

The School of Beauty and Charm by Melanie Sumner (Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 308 pages, $23.95)


Crazy as Batsh*t
By Lucy Perkins

Beauty and charm it ain't got. Humor, yes. A wacked-out plot, yes. A crazy-as-hell protagonist, definitely. But beauty and charm ­nope.

In fact the only thing that might lead one to associate the words beauty and charm with Melanie Sumner's novel is its title, which I'm sure operates strictly on an ironic basis, although I suspect a deeper message lurks somewhere beneath the close-to-random plot.

Unfortunately, that message is a little hard to read, although thankfully the text of the novel is not. Actually, The School of Beauty and Charm is a rather fun read and easily holds your attention. (Note: don't allow your attention to become mired down in trying to find a point to the novel, though. That a point The characters are the most fun. Louise, the guilt-wracked, identity-seeking protagonist, is clearly supposed to be the main attraction. As though Louise isn't already on the road to insanity at the beginning of the novel with her gregarious mother and stern father, her brother dies early on in a freak accident that Louise believes is her fault.

Louise, though, is quickly upstaged by her outgoing mother, Florida. Florida gives the book whatever personality it has via her own vibrancy. She simultaneously loves and terrorizes her daughter. (And how many of us can attest to moms who manage that feat?) Her make-up is impeccable and she has a little dog named Puff Leblanc (at least until it gets eaten by an owl). Florida, at the very least, is interesting.

Sumner goes out of her way to introduce us to even more outrageous and bizarre characters. First you have the psychiatrist who runs away with his receptionist and a big-talking redneck who Louise idolizes. Then, just to mix things up, there's a fire-eating circus freak, a three-legged woman and a black homosexual doctor turned circus clown; and those are just some of the weirdos Louise meets while working for a circus. Yet none of them really reaches the depth of interest enjoyed by Louise's mother. Florida, who reminds her daughter to wear make-up and fix her hair, even during her incarceration, is not unbelievably crazy like some of the other characters, she's just crazy crazy, like the guy who lives down the block from your house. Her completely flawed nature combined with her real love for her daughter is hard to reject.

Part of the problem here is that Louise, ostensibly the main character, never really inspires the same interest as Florida. During the course of the novel, Louise gains and loses weight, believes she murdered her brother and runs away to join the circus, and even so, there is little in her character to inspire a reader's affection.

It may seem a bit twisted to say so, but given the long history of crazy people in Southern literature, Sumner's psychotics, even in all their weirdness, often seem more trite than wacky. In The School of Beauty and Charm, I detect moments of Conroy's The Prince of Tides and even longer glimpses of Flannery O'Connor's grotesque mind. In other words, Louise lacks a craziness that is uniquely hers.

Unfortunately, the wacked out characters aren't tempered by a highly effective plot. The story seems not only unfocused but, worse, pointless, as though the author just wanted to fit in a bunch of clever bits she'd thought up over time. The preface is a paragraph that apparently sets the rest of the book up as a testimonial at an AA meeting (that's my inference). But a reading of the rest of the novel will make you wonder about this perspective. After all, Louise narrates most of the book, but for some reason chapter 14, the next to last chapter, abruptly switches away from her point of view. It's the kind of thing that makes you think there's a reason for it, but then there isn't one.

If you're looking for an entertaining read that'll give you a few laughs, not to mention a few poignant moments of emotion on behalf of gawky Louise, then you'll get a kick out of this book. Just try to stick with the novel for the first couple of chapters; it really does pick up eventually, I swear.

And even though the novel rather lacks both components mentioned in the title, maybe that's really part of the point: neither beauty nor charm is required to get by. Or maybe beauty and charm are only acquired once you've been thrown in the slammer. Who knew?

Lucy Perkins is a columnist for Creative Loafing.

A Trial By Jury by D. Graham Burnett (Knopf, 183 pages, $21.95)


Trying Experience
By Terry Hoover

A Trial by Jury is a personal memoir by D. Graham Burnett, an assistant professor of history at Princeton, of his experience as jury foreman in a murder trial. It is not a retrying of the case, although it is reported in sufficient detail, but rather one man's story of how a familiar civic duty became a harrowing experience, and the lessons he learned from it about people, the law, justice, and how we know it.

Burnett initially regards his jury summons as a tedious inconvenience, a chance to play "legal hooky," perhaps catch up on some reading. When the jury foreman abruptly disappears eight days into the trial, however, Burnett finds himself in charge of a group of strangers charged with deciding a man's fate.

As the justice system intends it should be, the group is a diverse one: a former rodeo cowboy turned vacuum-cleaner repairman, a Gen-X software developer, an interior decorator, an actress/bartender, an employee of a local mattress company, a West Indian, part-time security guard, two ad-copy writers, a second professor of history, and one man and one woman of uncertain occupation.

Sequestered for three nights and four days, attended continuously, even in the lavatories, by armed guards, they ran the gamut of group dynamics. They cried, hugged, vomited, yelled, cursed, rolled on the floor (in an attempt to reenact the crime), and invoked God and necromancy. One juror was hospitalized, another tried to escape, and when a third insisted on contacting her lawyer to extricate her from the situation, she was threatened with contempt.

The crime is sordid. A 21-year-old black man is charged with stabbing to death a gay man alleged to make a habit of luring men to his apartment by posing as a woman. The defendant claims he killed the cross-dressing victim in self-defense when he tried to rape him.

Burnett doesn't disguise his disdain for the judge or the less-than-stellar performance of the investigators and forensic experts, who often hold up the wrong evidence while testifying confidently to its veracity.

At times, Burnett's philosophizing descends into tedious pedantry, as when he digresses into the evolution of our current justice system from that of the Romans, but on the whole, he provides pungent observations on our justice system, trial by jury, and the application of law to evidence as separate from our ingrained desire for justice.

As the judge drones on about impartiality, Burnett muses on the difficulty of remaining neutral surrounded by the magisterial pomp of the courtroom.

"How," he questions, "can jurors ignore the fact that the state has already decided the defendant is guilty, in a theater trimmed with the trappings of the state's power and pomp?"

He also expresses frustration with jurors' lack of control in the process, pointing out that the asking of questions is reserved to those who play no role in judging the answers and that the jurors, who are supposed to try to find out what went on, have to remain absolutely silent. If they decide the defendant is guilty, they have no part in determining the consequences of that decision. The setting of punishment is reserved to the judge.

Burnett's frank depiction of the deliberations is enough to instill grave doubts about our trial-by-jury system. He pulls no punches in his descriptions of the other jurors and their behavior. Their inability to grasp the philosophical and moral issues involved, and their impatience to "get it over with" and return to their personal preoccupations, is frightening. One juror is revealed as incompetent, unable to distinguish between reality and daytime television.

Ultimately, the controversy is distilled to a question of law versus justice. Burnett argues that the true justice of our legal system lies in its ability to forgo "justice," that the very rigidity of the law is its strength. It is applied exactly the same for everyone. "Those it can catch, it will catch and what it cannot, it must let go."

Consensus, however, is against him. "The law's only purpose is justice and therefore justice has to be the higher principle," the other jurors insist.

It is Dean, the former cowboy, who breaks the stalemate by reminding the others that while they believe the defendant did something wrong, "Justice belongs to God. Men have only the law. Justice is perfect, but the law can only be careful."

Eventually, the other jurors conclude, along with Burnett, that "true justice, final justice, absolute justice, belongs to God; human justice can only be cautious, not perfect."

Terry Hoover is a freelance writer for a variety of publications and president of the local chapter of Sisters In Crime.


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