Living Dead Girl, by Tod Goldberg, Soho Press, 2002
Paul Luden, the narrator of Tod Goldberg’s second novel, feels haunted by a memory too dark to retrace. When an old neighbor calls him away from the anthropology class he teaches at a Los Angeles college, he drives home to Washington state, where his estranged wife, Molly, has been missing for days. He is accompanied by Ginny, his nineteen year-old girlfriend, an aspiring screenwriter who wants to learn to “see things, to recreate them exactly.”
Of course Ginny’s idealism and inexperience enable her to miss a few things. Paul, emotionally unstable since childhood, carries a number of obsessions. Time moves differently for him, “days and weeks turning to ash,” events rearranging in his mind. He relies on science to explain humanity, and when it cannot, he scratches scars into his chest.
In scenes drawn with remarkable precision, readers learn ahead of Ginny the pathos at the center of Paul’s love for his wife, the treachery surrounding the death of their young daughter. “If I believed in anything aside from science,” Paul says, “it was that Molly was meant for me…I needed to possess her. I am haunted by the memory of every person I have loved.”
In the spirit of literature’s most memorable unreliable narrators, Paul Luden gives us a great deal to doubt. But he becomes so emotionally powerful that, amidst his odd obsessions and tragically flawed calculations, we want to believe him. He cannot break his terrifying cycle of love and loss, and the more balance he loses, the more human he becomes.
When accused of stalking his wife in the weeks before her disappearance, he thinks, “I have always watched her. I have traced her throughout time and conceived her creation, her demise. I have counted the seconds between her breaths, predicted within five the amount of times she blinks in a given minute. I have seen her through the window of our home, when she didn’t know she was being seen, crying for a life she could never control.”
In a world where love and insanity become synonymous, Paul concedes, “True love is a blinding thing. It can color the experiences of even the worst events with a rosy tint, it can turn men and women into the best type of people—ones who will sacrifice the world for a shared moment of bliss.” As the novel moves toward its stunning conclusion, Paul’s tenets give light to the unspoken insanities of others, to the discovery of Molly’s fate.
Most psychological thrillers dance on a thin ledge of reality, but in the end, Living Dead Girl dares to dangle over it. Notably lush and lyrical, this work is a stylistic departure from Goldberg’s hip first novel, Fake Liar Cheat, and his magical, off-kilter short fiction appearing in literary magazines. (“The Jesus of Cathedral City” in Santa Monica Review and “Comeback Special” in Other Voices 31 are two fine examples.) Early in his career, Goldberg has shown an extraordinary range. Yet these works have one essential thing in common. Each captures a vivid and frenetically paced world as it spins out of control.
—reviewed by Stacy Bierlein
Walking Bones, by Charlotte Carter, Serpent’s Tail Press, 2002
Charlotte Carter has been building a reputation as a writer of urbane and sophisticated mystery novels. Currently she is developing a new series, to be set in Chicago evidently, but her work so far has featured Nanette, a smart, sexy, saxophone playing, black street musician who lives around the lower east side in New York, and whose amorous entanglements and soulful riffs bring not only lovers into her life but stone cold killers. Sometimes they’re one and the same. Carter, incidentally, is a Chicagoan by birth but has lived in New York for many years.
The Nanette books are a witty, knowing, occasionally raunchy extended paean to jazz. Not only can Nanette blow—her horn, calm down—but the chapters get their titles from jazz classics, now and then fairly obscure ones. Clearly the author loves the music and knows a great deal about it. The mysteries are fun, and they pay the rent, or at least one hopes they do. Though with New York rentals and the industry the way it is one can never be sure.
Walking Bones, a tight little gem of a story, is another kind of book altogether. It is the “real” novel you always suspect that genre writers have in their drawer and keep hoping will get published. This is a plunge into far deeper waters. The only thing it might loosely be compared to is Chester Himes’s The End of a Primitive.
Written in a spare, telegraphic style, it is in a way a classic noir novel. But it is also thoroughly contemporary. Set in New York, it is the story of an interracial love affair between a white businessman and a black woman, a onetime fashion model. But a shadow hangs over their relationship, for there is another man in her life. What makes this triangle different though, and so psychologically rich, is that the third person is a gay black man who not only is her closest friend but in every way except sexual is her lover. Indeed, he has gone so far in the past as to seek out partners for her bed, acceptable surrogates for himself.
Yet that is hardly the most perverse act we encounter. The relationship between the two lovers begins in the unlikeliest fashion of all, when the man insults her in a bar in a racially offensive way and the woman lashes out at him violently. And yet what follows makes a strange kind of sense, for the demons of race and personal guilt haunt them equally and drive them together. Until the inevitable reckoning at the end. This is a wrenching and beautiful novel, and an unflinching look at the human soul.
—reviewed by Eugene Wildman
The Blue Guide to Indiana by Michael Martone, FC2 Books, 2002
Before opening the cover of this book I am warned that what I am about to read is not real, is neither affiliated with, nor endorsed by, the series of “real” travel books which bear the same title. This book in no way factually depicts or accurately represents the State of Indiana, its destinations and attractions, its ventures or residents. There is no room to cast doubt that I am about to read a work of fiction.
And what a work. Martone’s Indiana is that of both citizen and ghost, child and degenerate, priest and comedian. The warning that precedes the text seems to acknowledge fiction as falsification. And whereas that question is never asked, the novel nonetheless implicitly holds a response. The architecture of Martone’s Indiana is almost entirely devised by one man and regulated by powerful microwave transmissions; its citizens trade in weather futures. Ringworm is the state insect—making the Hoosier state perfect refuge for thousands of (afflicted?) carriers, as the host of said state insect is likewise protected. Forget about visiting the rotting wooden gymnasium where Gene Hackman’s real-life counterpart led a small town’s fledgling basketball team to silver screen immortality. That’s way boring. You have the Death Tour! The Trans-Indiana Mayonnaise Pipeline! The Ten Little Italies of Indiana! And, of course, the mythical Sex Tour, a section that comes complete with carefully designated spaces in which to adhese family photographs of each and every venue!
There is Eli Lilly Land, the world’s first pharmaceutical theme park, filled with fun and flavor (natch) for the entire clan. The Placeotron offers a chewable vitamin and a five-mile roller coaster ride that makes acid feel like a decaf mochacchino. “It’s a Prozac World” blows Disney’s limp attraction right out of the water, and at the end of the day, ride the Amnesiac-a-tron, where angels sing lullabies and you forget you were ever there, so the next time you visit the park, again, you’ll have seen nothing like it in the world!
Martone’s creations don’t exist to simply make us laugh or imagine or desire. The fact that they do all of those things, that they are so outlandishly absurd, functions as a reminder. This Indiana is one of innocence, in a way; the world as seen through the dreary mud-and-rain-streaked glass of a hundred-thousand boring family vacations. Martone has transformed what is perhaps the most un-unique state in the union into a demented wonderland, r ipe with a history that changes so much only the simplest outline will do because why bother to write it all down, a wonderland where what is “real” is what is created. No different from knowin g there are monsters under the bed. No different from knowing you see dinosaurs sauntering in a f ield eighty yards away as your folks’ station wagon bombs over the asphalt. No different from bei ng stuck in some God-forsaken place and having your mind on anything else. Only, Martone does it better.
—reviewed by Brian Budzynski