Selah Saterstrom. Coffee House Press, $16.95 paperback (186p) ISBN: 978-1-56689-395-4
There are only so many instances in the world where people like Barbara Walters and a stripper who dresses up like Helen Keller will ever exist simultaneously. Not only do these two disparate entities coexist in Slab, Selah Saterstrom’s latest from Coffee House Press, but they do so in amazing, entertaining ways.
One of the first things you notice about Slab is that it isn’t a typical novel. Readers are given what amounts to stage directions and some “previous scenes” before learning that Tiger, the protagonist, is standing on a slab—all that’s left of a house in Mississippi. This is her stage and from here, Tiger is going to tell her story. We learn about some of the other “players” (such as Champ and Preacher, who both play a role later on in the novel), but the majority of the book is Tiger telling her story.
The story itself covers a wide range of topics—how Tiger got her name (a dye job), her life as a stripper (including her tenure stripping as “Ms. Killer,” Helen Keller), her love life, and much more. The delivery of these anecdotes varies in form, and this is where Slab is at its strongest. Sections—Acts—range widely throughout. Some are only a few sentences of prose. Some are poems. Some contain interjections by Barbara Walters, who seems to be interviewing Tiger as she tells her story. No single section is more compelling than the others. They are equally entrancing for the mythic that they invoke all the while living, breathing in the everyday world. Take Tiger’s recipe for “Red Velvet Classic”:
Get a thorn from a white rose bush. And a box of Betty Crocker red velvet cake mix. Acquire a jar of gold, magnetic sand. Goat milk, fresh if you can arrange it, you will need a whole cup…Petition that the dram correspond to the nine conditions, and a bench, chapel length, and a man’s bed…Bake the red velvet cake using black hen eggs…Bury the cake in your backyard, under a tree, whole, with birthday candles on top, burning. Balm, enough to coat the entire sarcophagus, and wash you slips in blue water that has within it one pinch of saltpeter. And after you have done these things, all these goddamn things, you will be done with it. You will be done.
Slab isn’t necessarily an easy book—there’s a lot going on and you realize very early on that this is intentional. Every bit of the chaos of images and emotions and life is exactly where it should be. What is great, though, is that this chaos is exciting. It makes reading feel like not reading. Instead, you are there, listening to Tiger tell her story. You can see Barbara Walters seated a few chairs away. Saterstrom makes you forget that you’re reading a novel.
In the end, Slab is more than a novel. The elements of play, poetry, art, prose, interview, and the many other things that have gone into this work make it artwork. Saterstrom’s latest is a beautiful, engaging piece of art that will be over before you know it. Like the best art, as well, it begs your attention again and again. Like with other great works of art, going back to Slab reveals more and more each time. (August 2015)
Purchase Slab HERE.
Reviewer bio: Sam Slaughter is the author of the chapbook When You Cross That Line and the upcoming short story collection God in Neon. He is a spirits writer for The Manual and is based in South Carolina. He can be found online at www.samslaughterthewriter.com and @slaughterwrites.