Other Voices Bookshelf

Appears in Other Voices #39

Bruiser by Ian Chorão, Atria, 2002.

It is difficult for a writer to capture a child's voice and perspective in a way that is neither simplistic (read: well-worn and tiresome to an adult audience), nor contrived (we are all familiar with the child narrator imbued with an overly poetic/analytical voice under the guise of being “precocious.”) Worse, these obstacles almost seem to cancel each other out: if the child's viewpoint is believable, it can be especially challenging to portray the world beyond the limited, skewed lens of that child's eyes. Yet young narrators offer a compelling rawness, a purity of sorts in that they have yet to be tainted by what the infamous Holden would call phoniness—and perhaps because nothing, really, is more universal than youth. So writers continue to strive, against all odds.

Sometimes they succeed beyond all expectations. Such is the case with Ian Chorão's remarkable first novel, Bruiser: an intense, tour-de-force of a late-1970s, New York boyhood. Bruiser is the rare novel that renders effortlessly—with no reader awareness of an adult writer pulling the strings—the rhythms of kid street life, of desperately tender and brutal family dysfunction, all with the serial Son of Sam murders lurking ominously in the background. Everything from creepy rituals performed on a dead cat, to the tragic and guilty death of a friend, leaps viscerally off the page.

Bruiser, the protagonist of this contemporary-picaresque novel, is a ten-year-old boy whose claim to fame rests in his high pain threshold and apparent immunity to beatings from the older neighborhood boys—in fact, he thrives on these episodes of violence, as they both take him outside himself and make him feel at once distanced and alive. The novel follows Bruiser through the jumpy slideshow of childhood, from his first heterosexual encounter in a basement where the older kids make out, to a rough, quasi-sexual friendship with Joey, a cynical kid he meets on summer holiday; from a disastrous attempt to confront his father about his mistress calling the house, to his private conversations with a photograph of his mother as a young girl—all leading to a runaway gone awry with a neighbor girl, Darla, whose family dynamic is as chaotic and isolating as Bruiser's own. What at first appears merely an illegal exodus to Joey's house soon spirals into a journey out of control, one that bonds the two in a cross between romantic and sibling love (“Her nipples are softer-looking than mine. They're funny, like two tiny pink jellyfish. I press one with a finger. Ding dong.”) Their growing trust is almost healing—almost, because of the ever-present threat of danger, and also because Bruiser cannot escape his need to return to every little boy's first love: mom.

While his wild adventures with Darla are the novel's centerpiece, the real brilliance here is Chorão's ability to portray Bruiser's family—in particular his mother, a mentally unstable, frustrated, yet deeply loving poet—in a way that makes them come completely alive despite Bruiser's limited ten-year-old perspective and knowledge. The interactions between his parents, and even his two elder brothers, are as nuanced and complex as if we were in these older point of views. Yet the insight level never veers from Bruiser's own staccato, impatiently hungry voice. Bruiser is a character who longs for magic, who tries to create it (usually out of something ugly or sad), and who has, in the end, a soul similar to his restless mother's—though each emerges stronger than they, or the reader, expected. The story, which, in the tradition of picaresque novels, never stands still for long, ends fittingly on another journey, this one shared by mother and son.

Neither sentimental nor nihilistic, Bruiser remains to the end true to its voice of childhood: harsh, honest, devoid of manipulation, yet never too far gone to hold out hope.

—reviewed by Gina Frangello

Love Among the Greats, by Edith Pearlman, Eastern Washington University Press, 2002.

Love Among the Greats, winner of the 2001 Spokane Prize for short fiction, is as elegantly sumptuous as the promise of a jewel box lined in velvet. Inside, the stories and characters shimmer with the clarity and precision of finely cut jewels. Pearlman's characters inhabit the achingly joyful space of love. She assembles tragic characters who achieve a hard won wisdom which forces them to move past their illusions to what love is meant to be.

In “Fidelity,” an ailing and aged Victor Cullen manages to outwit his wife's lover Greg, also his editor, by filing one last fictitious travel report from Azula “a haven for couples.” His report describes “crows, who mate for life, dwell in noisy twosomes in our ruined rafters,” service by “a man and wife lawfully married” and “a pair of cassowaries [that] occupy the courtyard.” Victor and his wife depart together in death thereby cheating Greg out of the consolation of a last chance at love.

But the wisdom and the instruction of love are not relegated to the old and the infirmed. In “The Accommodators” a young Michal learns a lesson in the concessions of wedlock. Her father, a Jewish professor, and her mother, a beautiful goy, settle agreeably into the holiday season. The family is served by a series of perennially inept graduate students who show up at their home to tend bar and help serve the Thanksgiving and Passover meals. Michal's mother, who conceals her beauty behind a wire and glass wall of austere spectacles, aptly names the feckless students “the accommodators.” However, what remains unanswered to Michal is the question: Is it in fact prudent to locate a measure of tranquility within the restrictions of accommodation when it requires one to give up a sense of self?

This question of the subordination and the emancipation of self are central to the theme of “Big Fish.” Years later, Michal is now married to Malachi, a black man who possesses a stunning physical presence. Michal finds herself in a familiarly ironic position. Like her father, Michal is married to someone whose beauty constantly threatens the balance of the relationship. However, unlike her mother, Malachi does not accommodate Michal through submissive adaptation. As they travel through Jerusalem, Michal feels threatened by anyone who crosses her husband's path. She sees all as potential lovers who will take him away from her. She possessively muses, “Il est a moi.” But it is not the pull of physiology that finally divides them; it is the tie of ancestry. Helplessly, Michal watches from the perimeter as Malachi is embraced and baptized by his own. “But these drenched folks by the river would always stand waiting to claim him; just as she supposed that crowd in skullcaps, patient as centuries, would sing to her forever from the courtyard under whose dust her great-grandmother's earring continued to glow.” Here, Michal learns, like her mother before, that even when one willingly surrenders oneself, the balance of love constantly shifts.

The promise of Love Among the Greats is fulfilled, and like all jewels that are warmed by the contact of human flesh, the stories should be both admired and treasured for their rare luminosity.

—reviewed by Camille Isabell

When the Messenger is Hot, stories by Elizabeth Crane, Little, Brown and Co.

One of the most innovative story collections of the year, Elizabeth Crane's When the Messenger Is Hot, presents a cast of characters winning attention in new places. The same can be said of the book's debut, which received mention on hip websites like Daily Candy, as well as in more traditional publications, including The New York Times.

Daily Candy calls Crane's women “psycho chicks actually worth talking to.” And The New York Times calls them basket cases and nervous wrecks—descriptions that, for me, miss the mark. These female characters are not cases or wrecks exactly. They're introspective, unusual, stunning, and real. One could make an argument, in fact, that in all their quirkiness, they're intensely normal.

In “An Intervention,” Alice becomes addicted to Alcoholics Anonymous. She has been drunk only once, but when her AA acquaintances tell her “you don't have to take the elevator all they way to the bottom,” she feels she belongs. She arrives home one night to a room full of family and friends. “We are here because we care about you,” her best friend says. Then her friend Adam spells it out. “Alice, you are not an alcoholic.”

“The Super Fantastic New Zealand Triangle” becomes an energetic study of fantasy, with there-you-have-it actual footnotes explaining things like past “discussions that involved flirting/negotiations of possible kissing, in which they both participated.” A story told in lists, “The Daves,” finds a preschool teacher dating three guys named Dave when more Daves come into the picture. In “Something Shiny” a writer allows superstar Apple Fowler to move into her apartment and study her life. The experiment goes awry as Fowler earns an Oscar, now “better at being me than me.”

In the title story, a man with piercings and tattoos (“he calls them ink”) invites the narrator to his apartment for dinner and West Side Story. She thinks “there's nothing cooler than a guy with tattoos who loves Gene Kelly.” When he reads his poetry and prayers to her, she thinks, “You will not see West Side Story. You will have sex with him right now.” But there's no sex. Instead, he talks to her about God. “I give props to the G-O-D, you know what I'm saying?” She leaves his apartment with a hug, kiss, refrigerator magnet, and Charms Blow Pop.

At first she can't figure it out. The lack of sex baffles her confidants. They say all the friendly things; maybe he's intimidated, gay, or Italian. They wonder what this date was all about. Eventually, the narrator realizes, yes, it's about the existence of God. “Maybe this is the only way God knows to reach me. Maybe I am being taken care of,” she reasons. Then the words that might have come from any number of Crane's characters, that seem to round out the collection: “Maybe God knows I will not pick up his messages if the messenger isn't hot.”

—reviewed by Stacy Bierlein

The Beginning of Calamities, by Tom House, Bridge Works

Tom House's first novel introduces us to Danny Burke, an eleven-year-old boy with a fervently active mind, feeling the agony of childhood, and on the verge of discovering his own homosexuality. Danny dreads recess—the cool boys playing Keep Away, while other boys jump around them, pretending to be part of the game so the girls don't notice they're not.

Danny remedies the situation by writing a play. His teacher, Liz Kaigh, will feel so impressed by his effort, so eager to produce it, he reasons, that she'll allow the class to stay inside at recess to practice. Of course, it should be more sophisticated than the Charlie Brown play he wrote in first grade. This is fifth grade, after all, so Danny writes The Passion of Christ.

Carol Burke, Danny's mother, feels alarmed as he spends time with the family bibles. She sent him to Catholic school, but never wanted him to become some kind of Jesus freak. When he explains his plans to write a passion play, “she finds it more than a bit unnerving, the way his wild ideas become things so fast.” When Danny carries his gigantic cross prop through town on his way to school, delighted nuns call him a pilgrim. His mother fears he's a lunatic.

In shifting points of view, Danny, Liz Kaigh, and Carol Burke describe the chaos surrounding Danny's play. Then Arram, a naked slave boy and perhaps one of the best imaginary friends ever invented, jumps off the pages of a religious text to sooth Danny's anxiety. As Danny and Arram embark on a series of adventures, Arram provides Danny with the honesty, loyalty, and compassion Catholicism is about to deny him.

As the auditorium fills and Danny's classmates take the stage, the momentum building throughout the novel comes to a boiling point. A thrilling series of surprises erupts—moments sure to leave Danny's Long Island town talking for decades. House is brilliant here, an expert storyteller. And this story ends abruptly, appropriately, at the beginning of calamities, in a world likely to fail far short of Danny's expectations.

—reviewed by Stacy Bierlein

Virtual Lotus: Modern Fiction of Southeast Asia, edited by Teri Shaffer Yamada, University of Michigan Press

Southeast Asian fiction earns high praise from scholars for its wit, satire, and innovation, but remains largely unknown in the domain of world literatures. In Virtual Lotus, an anthology seven years in the making, Teri Shaffer Yamada worked with more than sixty authors, scholars, and translators, to bring Southeast Asian short stories to an American audience.

In creating the collection, Yamada, a professor of Comparative Literature, a student of five Asian languages, and founder of Nou Hach Literary Journal (of modern Cambodian literature and cultural studies), looked to stories describing the social fabric of contemporary Southeast Asia. As she notes in her introduction, “to do justice to the literary creativity found in each Southeast Asian country would require a multi-volume series of encyclopedic length.” Her anthology represents what we hope is a beginning, a link to emerging fiction from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

The cultural and geographic diversity of these countries prevents a Pan-Southeast identity. Indonesia alone is a socially and linguistically complex archipelago of seventeen thousand islands. Still, the characters in Virtual Lotus' stories reveal a good deal of common ground. What these countries and their writers share is the experience of rapid modernization.

“Clean, Clear Water,” by U Win Pe (Burma) presents a humorous tug-o-war between traditional sensibility and Western scientific reason as a man obsesses with developing the perfect water treatment system. Technology clashes also add vigor to “The Family in the Street” by Sila Khomchai (Thailand) and “Foolish” by Aminah Haji Momin (Brunei).

Changing gender roles and gender politics come forward in “The Purification of Sita” by Leila S. Chudori (Indonesia) and “Sex, Size, and Ginseng,” by Mary Loh (Singapore). Disillusionment and alienation are reoccurring themes, well addressed by Bunthanaung Somsaiphon's bartender/narrator in “A Bar at the Edge of a Cemetery.” (Laos). And themes that permeate all world literatures—the absurdity of life and frailty of love—feel especially stunning in “Delirium” by Shahnon Ahmad (Malaysia), “The Painting” by Christina Pantoja Hidalgo (the Philippines), and “The Story of an Actress” by Duong Thu Huong (Vietnam).

The anthology, organized by country, includes section introductions that discuss regional literary histories, as well as current sociopolitical environments contemporary writers face. In addition, brief introductions are provided for each story, acquainting reader and writer. While these passages heighten the reader's experience of Southeast Asia, the stories themselves are the obvious treasures here. Readers craving additional context should feel pleased to know Yamada plans a companion volume, The History and Cultural Significance of Southeast Asian Fiction.

—reviewed by Stacy Bierlein