Other Voices Bookshelf

Appears in Other Voices #42

Brain Work by Michael Guista, Houghton Mifflin, to be published in July 2005

In the first story of Brain Work, winner of the 2004 Bakeless Prize for Fiction, a psychiatrist with a reputation of being a “brain man” returns home one evening, settles down to a glass of wine with his wife, and is broadsided by a pair of questions: “So then, what does it mean…when you say you love me?… Do you mean that a billion neurons or so are just firing up the word?” The psychiatrist pauses and, wishing to avoid dishonesty, composedly tells her “yes,” forever severing the feelings they once shared.

Throughout this intriguing and pertinent collection, Guista presents characters who struggle with this duality: are humans no more than physical beings, a storehouse of cells and nerves whose pleasure and pain can be modified by prescription drugs? Or are emotions evidence of a spiritual nature that allows us visions outside our corporal selves? For a generation that has learned to gobble down Prozac at the first sign of anxiety—a breakup, meeting new people, locking keys in the car—these stories are not only useful but a joy to read. And, like any writer worth his salt, Guista never provides a clear-cut answer to the duality he addresses.

Many of the characters who inhabit Brain Work are obsessed with the life of the mind: psychiatrists, sharp students, professors. An English professor in “The Year of Release” meditates on his own kind: “college teachers think everywhere at all times: when they’re walking down the street with their kids, they’re thinking of their kids and not their kids.” Yet this same professor is plagued with Tourette’s Disorder, barely able to contain himself from shouting Lit Clit or Goddamn Thomas Mann in front of the class. He teaches a bright student whose Dostoevskian epileptic fits are a personal source of vision and ecstasy. Guista’s subtle, poised portrayal of these characters elicits respect from the reader: the author appeals to our fascination rather than our sentimentality.

Other characters suffer from afflictions such as Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder, Parkinson’s disease, a head-splitting migraine. In “Step Four,” a man with OCD has spent his life downing every type of prescribed drug to find a cure: Valium, Xanax, Welbutrin, Stelazine, Paxil, Celexa, Lexapro. All make him feel detached: “I don’t get so low or so high and am more even keeled, but a little like dead weight.” In the end he abandons his family and goes on a bender, fueled by alcohol and cocaine, which makes him finally feel the emotions the meds have erased: the lust, the love, the guilt, the sadness, the anger—the excitement. He turns to the drugs that will spark his spirit rather than suppress it, no matter the consequence.

Most of the stories in the collection are written effectively in first person, allowing the reader close proximity to the characters. “The Interviewer” follows a scholar as he comes to question his own lack of faith in God while interviewing a series of believers. At first he thinks they’re crazy, racked with hallucinations and delusions. But he soon backs off of his harsh judgment: “I could tell who was religious and who wasn’t in a matter of moments by the gleam in their eyes, the ruddiness of their complexions. They could probably tell about me, too. I don’t have that religious glow.” Perhaps the gleam in the eye is caused by an excess of tears, the ruddiness of a rapid distension of blood vessels or maybe an infusion of the Spirit. Guista offers no simple resolution, the main reason to buy a copy of Brain Work.

—reviewed by Paul Bergstraesser

Loosing My Espanish by H. G. Carrillo, Pantheon Books, 2004

H.G. Carrillo’s first novel demands much from a reader. Cuban history, present action and questions about memory mix with retold family and school stories that weave together a densely beautiful novel about a history teacher named Oscar Dellosantos. In the first pages, Carrillo reveals that Oscar has been asked to leave his teaching position of twenty-some years and that his mother has burned her house down in an Alzheimer’s episode. From there, the novel spins out the stories that have gotten Oscar and his mother to this moment in time.

Through Oscar’s point of view, Carrillo writes of three Cuban women—dos negras y una blanca—and their sons, as well as the people from Chicago, Miami and Cuba that they meet along the way. Spanish mingles with the newly learned or never quite perfected immigrant English, Oscar’s competent teacherese and the lyrical prose Carrillo’s narration. At Oscar’s frustration with his Amá’s cognitive deterioration, Carrillo writes: “Después de tanta ira y desamparo, y el amor se convierte en otra cosa. What it turns into, I couldn’t tell you. Sometimes it’s nothing. Other times it can send you out to smash a pool cue over the head of someone who had not even looked at you in the wrong way. It’s a foaming bowl of piss—helplessness—that you hold to defend yourself against the path of a shark. And the odd thing is that just because you know something in advance, are completely aware of its inevitability—like the headlights of the truck coming toward you—doesn’t mean that you accept the inevitable or that its blow is somehow softened.”

Carrillo captures a whole history of Oscar, a man who never conforms to what others expect him to be racially or sexually. The Jesuits, who direct the all boys Catholic school where he teaches, dismiss him for rumors they hear about him several years after the love of his life, Aureliano, dies from AIDS. As Oscar tries to make sense of this, Carrillo depicts the remaining lectures in his Latin American history course and Oscar’s urgency to give his señores the truth about his own past and the lies in the textbook. Oscar tells his students the stories of how his mother and her two friends doña Liliana and doña Cristina lived in and left Cuba, but Carrillo weaves into the classroom scenes, Oscar’s memories of the romance with Aureliano and the remembered stories that Aureliano told of his own family’s escape from Cuba.

Carrillo’s writing vividly transverses the sparseness of Cuban beaches, the glitzy luxury of 1950s La Habana and the present urban sprawl of Chicago’s Ashland Avenue—sometimes within the same page: “We walked the three blocks hurriedly on to the night-bright of Ashland Avenue. Few cars pass at that time of night, the traffic lights change and wait in anticipation. The few cars that did pass us either thought nothing of two people in their pajamas, Amá in her fur coat, pulling a shopping cart behind them, because they either sped along—flew through red lights—or crept down the street weaving between the yellow lines. It’s only at night, señores, that you notice, really notice, the debris, the dirt that blows about, what people throw away. Only then when you’re watchful of everything that you see it.”

Loosing My Espanish does not back away from the issues of caring for the beloved sick, educating the cocky young, or facing loss and continuing. As unique a position Oscar Dellosantos holds in the identity politics of the current literary landscape, Carrillo has rendered a complex beautiful story that is as tightly bound as all immigrant journeys.

—reviewed by JoAnne Ruvoli

Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno, Punk Planet Books with Akashic Books

As the rock band Nirvana became hot in the 1990’s, Kurt Cobain’s mother told interviewers she never realized how angry her son was; that until she really listened to the music, she had failed to see just how much young people were up against. Music reviewers tended to agree: No matter what kind of rock you listened to then—grunge, punk, heavy metal (remember Slayer?)—the anxiety of the era seemed hard to deny.

Joe Meno understands the angst and the songs. His novel, Hairstyles of the Damned, tells the story of Brian Oswald, a high school junior whose voice lingers like some of the best music of the time; intimate, angry, resigned, spontaneous, and perhaps, for those listening the hardest, intravenous. With background tracks by Metallica, Guns n’ Roses, Black Sabbath (Brian’s metal phase), then the Smiths, the Misfits, the Dead Kennedys (Brian’s punk phase), we see that Brian’s enduring love is Gretchen, his pink-haired best friend known for “kicking other girls’ asses on a regular basis.” Brian shares the novel’s finest scenes with Gretchen and its pace often slows in her absence.

Meno appreciates the art of juxtaposition, arranging his prose with stunning precision. Humorous moments—instructions for using Manic Panic hair dye, rules for successful making out, play lists for made-up bands—break up the more grave issues these characters face, like disintegrating families, the legacy of racism, alienation. This makes Hairstyles of the Damned appropriately hard to pin down. Coming-of-age story, political commentary, chronicle of the early 1990’s, portrait of Chicago’s South Side—the novel is all and none of these things.

Meno’s use of song lyrics, history class notes, and bathroom graffiti seem to prove what Donald Barthelme told his readers—that fragments are the trustworthy form. In its lighter moments, Hairstyles of the Damned reminds us why we loved to hate high school. In other moments we wonder how any of us actually made it to the year 2000. And in the end we cannot help but admire Brian’s insistence that the smallest things—a party, a mix tape, a kiss—might hold the power to change us completely, might finally make us better.

—reviewed by Stacy Bierlein

What You’ve Been Missing by Janet Desaulniers, University of Iowa Press, winner of the 2004 John Simmons Short Fiction Award

Reading a collection of really wonderful short stories is like holding up a kaleidoscope to the light and turning it to watch, amazed, as the shards of color inside shift again and again into new patterns. How can each one be so different, you think, when they are all made of exactly the same things? This is what I thought, reading Janet Desaulniers’ What You’ve Been Missing, a collection so rich, so true and so emotionally wrenching that I could only read it a few stories at a time. “My mother believed I understood now, as she certainly did, that life was one loss slowly opening into another,” Ellen observes in “Where We All Should Have Been.” This is what Desaulniers herself understands. Her kaleidoscope is made of loss and its seemingly endless permutations.

These stories observe the small moments of grief that accompany loss in the most original ways. “Life, no longer ordinary, becomes profligate—a reckless boil of mute, mystifying details,” says the narrator of “Everyone Is Wearing a Hat,” describing her state of mind nine months after the death of her son. “Last week, in an elevator, rocketing to the twenty-sixth floor and my dentist’s office downtown, I stood breathless and blinking, having just realized, like some character in a parable stunned into sensibility, that everyone but me was wearing a hat.”

There are lovely moments of human connection in these stories, too. In “The Good Fight,” Liza finally yields to her friend Dutton’s embrace and “Every place he touched became a place where her sorrow was not.”

In “After Rosa Parks” Ellie takes her troubled son Cody out of school for the day, to the beach, where she buys him a milkshake and watches him enjoy it, “glad that they could sit here half the morning and then stop at the park if they felt like it. The gift of her child was that in his presence life lengthened and uncoiled, this day spread out before them as sweetly as dawn.”

Desaulniers’ characters are complex and idiosyncratic, fully alive on the page. Her dialogue, sharp and stunning: “‘You’re sixteen years old,’” Ellen of “Where We All Should Have Been” says to her sister, upon finding her in a tavern. “‘You’re barely born, sitting over there with people you shouldn’t meet in a lifetime.’” “‘You miss another year of school, and you’ll end up just like her,’” Louise’s grandma in “Roll” says to her about her mother. “‘And what is she good at? The woman could take a job drowning kittens.’ “‘I think she’s going to sign me up tomorrow,’ Louise said. ‘Tomorrow.’ Nana Marge turned back to her hotel. ‘Tomorrow means day old bread.’”

Each one of these stories is masterfully crafted, moving like a little machine to a conclusion that leaves the reader feeling as unnerved and baffled as if he’d actually lived through them himself. You close the book after reading the last one and think, what is life, anyway?

—reviewed by Barbara Shoup