Other Voices Bookshelf

Appears in Other Voices #41

Juncture: 25 very good stories and 12 excellent drawings edited by Lara Stapleton and Veronica Gonzalez, Soft Skull Press, 2004

Juncture defies our expectations from the first page. Its cover and list of contributors imply a discussion of post-modernism; a celebration of experimentation and a return to the risk-taking and permission-giving prose forms of the 1970’s. But editors Stapleton and Gonzalez make a wise choice, foregoing the larger discussion and devoting their attention to the vital role of collaboration in creating innovative works.

“In collaboration,” Gonzalez points out, “there is no possibility for perfection. If the thing were perfect, nothing could come to it and alter our experience of it.” Stapleton recalls Grace Paley’s tour-de-force, “A Conversation with My Father,” where a dying father asks his daughter for a straightforward story. While she wants to please him, she feels incapable of stories that are absolute lines between two points, believing this “takes all hope away.” Juncture’s stories refuse to follow paths. They mingle with the unruly and link easily with other forms. As the editors agree, collaboration is a hopeful call for participation.

While various journals and magazines have juxtaposed drawing and photography with fiction over the years, few anthologies have ventured successfully into a marriage of visual art and the written word. And none before Juncture have provided a soundtrack. Readers are invited to visit the Juncture website to receive musical compositions inspired by the stories and drawings. More than fifty artists have participated in Juncture to date, a healthy number, especially as the works—written, visual, and musical—do more to celebrate one another than distract.

Established writers like Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus, Colson Whitehead and Pagan Kennedy are at their stunning best here. Emerging writers like Su Avasthi, Eric Gamalinda, Kelly Link and Charlotte Warren contribute oddly sexy stories that other writers will read with envy. Avasthi’s “Greedy, Greedy” follows the affair of an anorexic and a sex addict who meet at a bookstore that keeps its cookbook section next to erotica. Gamalinda’s “I Alone and the Hours” introduces Amanda as she begins to receive e-mail from her ex-husband, Rafael. The real problem for Amanda begins when Rafael’s notes keep coming, even after his sudden death in a train accident. Kelly Link takes us to a bizarre heaven in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” where a dead man struggles to remember the name of his wife. And in Warren’s “Trespassing,” a woman named Jesus begins to understand her marriage to Aladdin is doomed when he sets out to seduce five elderly virgin sisters after church.

In its best moments, Juncture contributors invite their audience to join them at play. Gonzalez quotes the British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who says play occurs in the space between things, lying in places of non-ownership, places where two subjectivities will come together in a creative way. Gonzalez and Stapleton recognize the open-endedness of their project and the possibilities inherent in it. In the end, the Juncture experience is an inspired coming together, in an era where coming together feels more difficult and essential.

—reviewed by Stacy Bierlein

Homeland by Cris Mazza, Red Hen Press, 2004

Cris Mazza’s raw and mysterious novel introduces us to Ronnie, who works in a geriatric hospital where her father lives as a result of his stroke. It’s a decent facility, but when Medicare cuts force his departure, a series of events lead Ronnie and her father to live deep in the canyons, homeless, finding shelter in what’s left of Southern California’s wilderness.

Mazza’s deep sense of place shines throughout. She attends to nature with sharp precision, balancing Ronnie’s emotional landscape with the physical one. As the former purity of Dictionary Valley’s canyons becomes corrupted by tract homes and condos, strip malls and mini-marts, Ronnie must see exactly what her eco-system, society and family have become.

“The strange atmosphere is still whitewashed with the smothered sound of a faraway surf, but it’s the freeway she hears reverberating.” Ronnie recalls that her “rendition of history…the chronicle of Dictionary Valley itself, was part of the home-schooling carried out by her mother … Her mother’s death was her graduation.”

In a continuing series of vivid flashbacks, Ronnie contends with her past—the loss of her brother and mother, and a longing as hopeless as the changed environment. As she and her father live from the land, her near-animal grief accumulates power. She hears her own voice calling for her mother, “a sound at once so utterly foreign and terrifyingly familiar.”

Scenes often unfold in real time as Mazza locks us into an era of detachment where her vibrant characters can only struggle to attach. There are no illusions about happy endings, only a need to acknowledge life’s cycles. Probing and introspective, this novel may very well be Mazza at her best.

—reviewed by Stacy Bierlein

Hidden Place by Shawn Shiflett, Akashic Books, 2004

Shawn Shiflett’s ambitious first novel pits Roman, a college-aged writing student on vacation in Mexico, against a power-hungry sheriff, a set of racist rednecks and his own unhappy girlfriend. As the novel’s moral center, Roman hangs on to his convictions amid beatings, arson fires, a rape and a murder at a small beachfront tourist camp in Escondido Bay. It’s the Bicentennial, and Gerald Ford is president, Deep Purple is on the eight-track and the sexual revolution is in full swing.

Through Roman’s eyes, Shiflett narrates the turbulent relationship with girlfriend Mila Popovic both in Mexico and in flashbacks. She is another of Roman’s causes. The daughter of anti-semitic World War II “displaced persons” who have never quite improved their English, she carries her parents’ troubles into her relationship with Roman. Shiflett’s description of the summer Roman and Mila spend living together is lush with details of the north side of Chicago: “Then around the middle of spring, just about the time the trees in Chicago are fooled into opening their buds only to suffer the consequences of a freak snowstorm, Mila spotted an ad in the Reader for a one-bedroom apartment in the Lake View neighborhood on Belmont Avenue above a Polk Brothers appliance store. The rent was a whopping $250.” The purpose of their vacation in Mexico is to smooth over some of the bumps in their relationship, but they are caught up in the turmoil between the local Indian residents and the young North American tourists. Because of Roman’s good intentions and sense of justice, the couple becomes mired in the economic and political problems of the Mexican town.

There are many big moments in this novel, but Shiflett also shines in the small details that define the locations where they take place: the Escondido beach, the little town with restaurants and stores, and the mountainous hidden place of the title. But especially Chicago: “That nippy night, I sat on the smooth tar that still held the warmth of the day’s sun, hugging my jacket to my ribs. Chicago’s sodium streetlights reflected a crown of pink above the city. Far to the south, the Sears Tower, John Hancock, and Standard Oil building stood tall and ruled the glittering downtown skyline; to the west, high above a sea of rooftops, Saint Alphonse’s church steeple pierced the night; a half mile to the north, Wrigley Field, embarrassed by yet another Cubs’ nose-dive finish… hid shrouded in darkness…”

Shiflett’s novel takes Roman on the adventure of traveling in an unfamiliar country with the hope of escaping the burden of his own values and beliefs. In that grand American tradition of finding self-definition in the landscape, Roman gives it his best effort. Shiflett’s novel, in its big and small moments, is worth an effort as well.

—reviewed by JoAnne Ruvoli

Falling Backwards: Stories of Fathers and Daughters edited by Gina Frangello, Hourglass Books, 2004

Falling Backwards: Stories of Fathers and Daughters is a stirring anthology of nineteen stories—many already classics—that explores the mystery and beauty of the ordinary father—the man behind the newspaper, the man holding the briefcase, the kind of man most of us lived with but never really knew. Though honest and hard-hitting, the stories are ultimately compassionate and leave the reader feeling reflective and deeply satisfied. Many of the stories highlight a burden that is transferred from father to daughter. In Aimee Bender’s “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt,” that burden is a physical, tangible thing: a backpack made of stone, once worn by a wheelchair-bound father then given to his daughter. The weight of this backpack is matched by the burden of her own “horrible and dangerous thoughts” she tries to hide.

Often, the burden is something more subtle—a yearning for closeness that can’t quite be bridged. For example in Peter Ho Davies’ “Brave Girl,” a ten-year-old girl accompanies her father, a dentist, to work after her parents’ recent split. She watches him perform surgeries, witnessing how much like a family her father, hygienist and young patient appear to be. Her best chance at raising her value in her father’s eyes, she believes, is to be unafraid of the implements he uses. “Before he closed up, I made my father examine me. I could tell he was unhappy. After all the cowardly kids, the cry-babies, I thought I could cheer him up by being the perfect patient.” In Pam Houston’s “Waltzing the Cat,” a father can more easily express his grief and his love to an obese cat than to his daughter Lucy, and yet we see him try, we watch him get close but blow it. And in the title story that ends the collection, Dan Chaon’s “Falling Backwards,” a teenager, whose mother has been dead for a year, is unable to discuss her grief with her father, though he “can feel the weight of it as he stands in her doorway, looking in, trying to get her attention. He dances for a moment, and then he stands there, arms loose at his sides, waiting.”

Redemption can come just as quietly. This is true in Bliss Broyard’s “Mr. Sweetly Indecent.” “I’ve recently begun to realize that my father’s life exists outside the one in which I have a place,” says the narrator known only as “honey,” who spotted her father kissing a woman other than her mother. After confronting her father, Honey can neither view him as her prior ideal nor consider him unkind or purposefully hurtful to her mother. Her father’s failings resemble her own, and we discover he is just a man.

In the anthology’s forward, author Elissa Schappell suggests perhaps it’s no coincidence that the daughters in this collection seem unable to get to know their fathers until their mothers are away—by death, illness, abandonment. In Kaui Hart Hemmings’ “The Minor Wars,” a father, fumbling in the void created by his wife’s coma, finds his daughter “pointing out my flaws, my tricks and lies. She’s interviewing me. I’m the back-up candidate. I’m the dad.”

No one story quite pins down these fathers. But together, through narrative lenses ranging from humorous to absurd to reflective, we see a broader, more insightful picture of the ordinary, elusive fathers so many of us have known.

—reviewed by Susan Henderson

The Perfect American by Peter Stephan Jungk (translated by Michael Hofmann), Handsel Books

Walt Disney commands his own sizable territory in the American imagination. Peter Stephan Jungk’s The Perfect American provides a fascinating fictive, though meticulously researched, portrait of Disney, set during the last days of his life. Jungk’s narrator is an obsessed disgruntled employee, an animator fired by Disney in 1959. The book is thus about two men, Disney and one Wilhelm Dantine, a fabrication of the author.

Though the character of Dantine is a compelling vision of the kind of European émigrés who flocked to America, many working in Hollywood, immediately before and after World War II, most readers will be drawn in, like Dantine himself, by the power and contradictions of Disney’s persona. Disney was fully aware of his worldwide fame, and contributions to posterity, yet he suffered acutely from self-doubt as well. The principle charge leveled by Dantine at Disney, whose sting Disney painfully feels, was that the famous man was not, after all, the creator of the magical works bearing his name. In the most vivid scene of the novel, Dantine breaks into Disney’s home, bearing his own draft images from Sleeping Beauty, which he spreads out on the ground. Disney, visibly shocked by the narrator’s gall, splutters, “That belongs to me!…It’s the property of my studio!” To which Dantine replies, “Not one of the drawings that your films are based on, not a single one of them, is even by you. Not in any one of the films…You’re the thief, Walt” (85-86). Disney defends himself, in this scene and elsewhere, with the entrepreneurial argument that he provided the space, motivation and organization without which his talented animators would have amounted to nothing. This debate as to the ownership of the art copyrighted by Walt Disney, Inc., has become an area of concern for postmodern theorists wondering about the place of the individual talent in an era of mass production. Later in the novel, as he tries to meet with Disney on his deathbed, Andy Warhol throws in his two cents. Proclaiming Disney as his idol, Warhol admits, “I often have the feeling that I’m representing the United States of America in my art, just like Walt…with the help of my huge army of helpers, who have to do exactly what I tell them to…And I don’t want to show any ugliness in my work either” (156).

Warhol is one of a huge cast of cameos that also makes this book a load of fun to read (Salvador Dali, Charlie Chaplin, Peter Ustinov, even Nikita Kruschev). But Warhol’s monologue points to what’s probably the most interesting aspect of Jungk’s rendering of Disney. Disney is portrayed here with a strange aversion to certain unpleasant realities, coupled with an extreme (some might say “freakish”) political conservatism. The former we would call, today, a “Disneyfied” view of the world; the latter, Reaganism. Disney was an early supporter of Ronald Reagan, even before he won the governorship of California in 1966. In perhaps the funniest scene in the novel, Disney attends to a malfunctioning automated replica of his idol, Abraham Lincoln, at Disneyland. Disney struggles with the robot as it recites bits and pieces of the Gettysburg Address. As he hears the words afresh, however, he confesses, “I don’t like what I’m hearing…Much as I revere you, Mr. President…your views no longer tally with mine” (63). So he orders some editing for the recorded text in the machine, thus “Disneyfying” Mr. Lincoln. This need to dress up raw realities extends even to his eating habits. While he eats meat, it must be served with as little evidence of its previous existence as possible, no bones, blood, fat, etc.—canned food he likes best. And of course, as is commonly known about Disney, he dreamed of defeating death itself through the scheme of freezing his body in liquid nitrogen. The smartest aspect of The Perfect American is the connection Jungk manages to establish between cultural Disneyism’s disregard for reality and the nascent political creed of “Morning in America” Reaganism.

—reviewed by C.W. Cannon