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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.