It is Better to Travel in Hope than Arrive in Despair*: Review of Greg Shemkovitz’s LOT BOY

LOT BOY
Greg Shemkovitz. Sunnyoutside Press, $16 paperback (272p) ISBN: 978-1-934513-49-1

There are few places worse than a waiting room.  Whether you’re waiting to see a doctor or just waiting to get your car fixed, it’s a terrible process.  Best case scenario, you spend a bunch of money and return to homeostasis.  Worst case scenario, whatever you’re trying to fix is beyond repair.  Either way, you remain in a state of anxious indeterminacy until someone more knowledgeable than you (and you hope, as trustworthy) gives you the news. 
This sense of anxiety and the desire for something better infuse Lot Boy by Greg Shemkovitz.  Set in the bleak winter landscape of Buffalo, Eddie Lanning, son of “Big Pat” Lanning, spends his days at his father’s Ford dealership as the resident lot boy.  Emptying the oil drums, sweeping the floor, detailing the cars, going on parts runs—all of these are the menial tasks that occupy the narrator’s day.  He stomps around, full of rebellion and a bad attitude, wanting nothing more than escape—to get away from his crass and ill-tempered father, to get away from the drudgery of the dealership, to get away from the endless snowy fields and strip malls of Buffalo. 
Each night, he only makes it as far as a joy rides around town in one of his father’s cars, occasionally getting picked up by the police.  The opportunity for a more permanent escape presents itself in one of Spanky’s schemes, a mechanic whose catch phrase is “Shit’s fucked up, dude, you know?”  They will order extra parts and sell them to one of Spanky’s associates, a terse man with linebacker goons.  From the outset, it is obvious what a terrible idea this is.

Review of Edward Mullany’s THE THREE SUNRISES

The Three Sunrises
Edward Mullany. Publishing Genius Press, $16.95 paperback (on sale for $13.95) (408p) ISBN 13: 978-0-9906020-2-6

If you’re familiar with Edward Mullany’s previous books or his comics, you’re no stranger to his balance of humor and creeping dread, how one image can give you a feeling you can’t quite place.  His trilogy within a trilogy, The Three Sunrises, continues his previous works’ apocalyptic themes, offering conclusion without resolution. While Mullany’s first two books in the trilogy were poetry collections, The Three Sunrises is a collection of three novellas.  It’s as epic as three apocalyptic books in one can be, but it’s also quiet.  You leave the book feeling you’ve been on a journey, but you don’t feel the weight of 400 pages.

The first novella, “Legion,” is told in short chapters.  It starts out episodic and becomes more and more linear as we follow a first person narrator through his day to day.  There is always something a little off with his world, and the story is peppered with absurdity, wit, and terror—from a run-in on the subway to screwdrivers falling from the sky to not remembering a single instant of buying dish soap—as we edge toward his world’s demise.

The second, “The Book of Numbers,” is a straight narrative, but the twists and the stops and starts are anything but straight.  This journey story transitions the way dreams do as we find ourselves in stranger and stranger worlds with imagery reminiscent of Revelations.  But it’s a journey that leads us back to beginnings and back to middles that made this reader feel she and the characters were in purgatory, which feels appropriate for the middle story.

The final novella, “The Three Sunrises,” returns to short chapters as the narrator tracks a man who is his exact double through the city.  As we’ve come to expect from the book, this is only the beginning of our narrator’s journey.  In fact, many of the characters throughout the book become desensitized to the twists in their stories, commenting that it would be stranger if something didn’t happen.

What makes these stories stand out among other journeys to the end (or to the never-ending) is the narration.  Whether in first of third person, the voice is polite.  It’s observational and measured, whether discussing the mundane or the biblical.  Even when expressing emotion, there is a remove as the narrators rephrase sentences, searching for accuracy over pathos.  And this not only adds to the peculiarity of the characters, but it also lets the image and action take over.  Often the narrator ends a scene right when a different kind of story would push forward to action and rumination.  Instead, we are left to finish the scene or the meaning.  We are left to laugh, shudder, or—more often—both. (June 2015)

Purchase The Three Sunrises HERE.

Reviewer bio: Christy Crutchfield is the author of the novel How to Catch a Coyote.  Her work has appeared in Tin House, Mississippi Review, Salt Hill Journal, Juked, and others.  Visit her at christycrutchfield.com

Review of Christy Crutchfield’s HOW TO CATCH A COYOTE

How to Catch a Coyote
Christy Crutchfield. Publishing Genius Press, $12.95 paperback (208p) ISBN: 978-0988750388

How do you survive a family? That is what is at the heart of How to Catch a Coyote. In Christy Crutchfield’s first novel, she lays everything out for the reader – an entire family history from start to finish, first unplanned pregnancy and all. But the history has been ripped apart, the pieces scattered to the four winds. It’s a great creative leap by the author, who shows us the collective patchwork of each family member’s memories, skipping back and forth between time periods. The primary focus goes to Daniel, the youngest of the Walker clan, who begins the novel writing a sort of family history for a college writing course, finding the effort pointless. With a bit of confidence, Crutchfield has Daniel lay out all the bare facts in the very first chapter. It’s a brave move as most authors (and their editors) would be too scared to reveal it all from the get go. Crutchfield handles it with deft skill. She returns to each era, showing it to the reader from different angles and points-of-view, each family member telling their side like a southern Rashomon. So we already know about the parents break-up and what ultimately happens to Hill Walker, the father. But as we return to the past again and again, seeing how each family member saw it unfold, we find new details and revelations. We also see more of the stark humanity of each family member. Each as complex as the other. All a sum of their faults.

All of this would have been a mere literary gimmick if Crutchfield couldn’t match it with really outstanding writing. She has a great knack for being both spare in her prose, not wasting a word, and yet somehow injecting something bigger within the simple lines. Small incidents have larger implications.

The Stories We Tell: Review of Lori Jakiela’s Belief Is Its Own Kind Of Truth, Maybe

Belief Is Its Own Kind Of Truth, Maybe
Lori Jakiela. Atticus Books, $14.95 paperback (290p) ISBN: 978-0-9915469-2-3

We are in many ways defined by the stories we tell, both those we recite to ourselves and to others. Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe begins with a line that grabs the reader instantly: “When my real mother dies, I go looking for another one.” Belief is a moving memoir that sifts through the overlapping, conflicting, and at times buried stories of the narrator’s adoption narrative.
When asked what she wants to know in finding her birth mother, Lori answers “a medical history.” It’s a calculated half-truth—the reader knows it and Lori knows it, even writing, “What else I wanted: a name of each doll-layer, each little box, each person inside a person inside me.”
What defines family? How does family define us? In the wake of the deaths of the parents who raised her, Lori searches for her biological mother and works through those questions in what becomes the understandably emotional journey of a flawed and human narrator. As a writer, Lori Jakiela crafts a compelling version of herself as narrator, devoid of sugar coating. Readers of this memoir are on the journey with her, alternating between elated and upset, cautious and rash, fiercely independent and in need of familial support.

Review of Ryan Ridge's AMERICAN HOMES

AMERICAN HOMES
Ryan Ridge. University of Michigan Press, $16.95 paperback (114p) ISBN:
978-0-472-05258-5

Find a job, get married, buy a house, have children.  For most of us, this plan was laid out before we were born.  But according to headlines, many of us are choosing not to get married or have children.  According to headlines, Gen Y is renting instead of buying.  Yet the house is the corner stone of the middle class American family.  When I ask my students about the American Dream, someone always says, “A house with a white picket fence.”  While the specifics may vary, the significance of basements and attics, of windows and driveways, offer common ground.  Ryan Ridge’s American Homes offers a look at that significance through satire and nostalgia.  The book examines and exhausts the home.  And in doing so, it honors, pokes fun at, and mourns the American Dream.

The book is broken into three parts: Part III (anatomy), Different Voices/Different Rooms, and Ideas.  Each explores American homes with puns, faux history/statistics, and slips into the poignant.  Part III is a manual for American homes, detailing the purpose and history of porches, doors, windows, roofs, etc.  The voice is instructional, and the matter-of-fact tone adds to the humor, using statistics from the “Nu American Center for Statistical Analysis (NACSA).”  The basement door is the scariest door because, “in five homes out of ten, strange things happen.”  When describing porches, it’s important to note, “a person appears 40% more attractive with a cigarette in his or her hand.”  Think Cortazar’s Instructions from Cronopios y Famas mixed with the utilitarian voice of a Saunders short story.  The narrator catalogues everything from the bedroom door, “AKA Cupid’s Flap,” to garage sales, “Name applied to black market items sold and resold (and sometimes traded) by American Homeowners in a tax-free zone.”

Review of Katie Byrum’s BURN IT DOWN

BURN IT DOWN
Katie Byrum. Forklift Ohio Books, $14.95 paperback (112p) ISBN:
978-0990308201

Katie Byrum’s Burn it Down is an emotive collection of poems told from the perspective of a narrator who has been pulled from the bucolic settings of rural Kentucky by the urban lure of Brooklyn, New York. The poems concern themselves with the soul-destroying disappointment experienced through unrequited love, or worse still, retracted love. It is clear right from the prologue that Byrum has a voice that is able to provoke both a visceral as well as an intellectual reaction through a well-balanced mixture of stubborn defiance and insecure vulnerability.

whether I will fret and go so inward only a hard shake
can wake me, or fling myself so far into belligerence
they have to yank me by the hair to bring me back
(From Prologue)

The bulk of the text takes place in New York and the collection could even be described as a New York book; the sense of place is prevalent enough to be considered a character in itself rather than a setting or backdrop. While Kentucky isn't as heavily featured, it is ever present as a symbol of security—a safety net to fall back on as a last resort. And it proves to be a necessary safety net when everything in New York finally burns to the ground.

Review of A BOOK OF UNCOMMON PRAYER, edited by Matthew Vollmer

A Book of Uncommon Prayer
Edited by Matthew Vollmer. Outpost 19, $18.50 paperback (234p) ISBN: 978-1937402761

Readers don’t necessarily have to be the praying type to connect with this remarkable anthology that riffs on The Book of Common Prayer, described on Wikipedia as “the short title of a number of related prayer books used in the Anglican Communion. Editor Matthew Vollmer strips away the bylines of this truly exceptional gathering of authors (credits are given at the back of the book) and allows the power of the pieces to do all the heavy lifting, clear of accreditation. This is a savory collection best enjoyed slowly, with heavier prayers for tolerance and patience served up alongside lighter fare with topics including divine intervention at sporting events to wedding vows and safe baby seats. A mother with a child in the next room seeks mercy while receiving a Brazilian wax; a reluctant angler implores god to cut the line to spare the unwanted adult attention and potentially haunting memories of fish that swallow hooks; an anonymous narrator asks absolution for the size of the moon’s heart: “The internal composition of the moon includes a core that’s three times smaller than that of the average terrestrial body. Forgive its smallness. Blessed are the meek…It has to beat thrice as hard for the moon to maintain its composure.” Throughout, the writing is frequently poetic and beautiful, circling back often to stories of parents seeking kindness and protection for their children as they mature and move through life. Perhaps the greatest success of this anthology is its ability to remind us that, despite our subjective dogmas or lack thereof, there is an ever-present mystery sewn into life, whether we call it god or science, and we are all part of a grand design worthy of contemplation and reverence. (April 2015)

Purchase A Book of Uncommon Prayer HERE.

Reviewer bio: Mel Bosworth is the author of the novel FREIGHT. Visit his website at melbosworth.com