Archive for August, 2010

A Review of “Clinical, Brutal… An Anthology of Writing with Guts” by Christopher Nosnibor, Editor

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

Jessica Maybury

Clinical, Brutal… embodies the manifesto of Clinicality Press: “…the concept of ‘clinical brutality,’ i.e. those everyday acts of violence recounted crisply, factually and using technical rather than literary flourishes.” This is certainly not a ‘literary’ collection, although some of the better stories do contain elements of literary insight.

The collection, edited by Christopher Nosnibor, makes me think of that moment when you flip a coin and it hangs in the air, spinning, its landing side unknown. The reader is unsure as to whether each story is going to be good or not so good–they might as well be flipping a coin to decide. The only thing to do is to plunge in, sliding effortlessly through the smears of blood and juicy ropes of gore to the heart of the story. Sometimes your efforts will be rewarded, and sometimes not. Work by Pablo Vision, Díre McCain, A. D. Hitchin and S. F. Grimm are almost certainly going to reward the reader. The others, not so much.

It’s not that the stories themselves are bad. They’re not. It’s two things, really:

1. Spelling mistakes. I cannot abide them, and there is no excuse for them.
2. Peppered between the better stories, written by the people listed above, are stories that smack of the juvenile. I don’t know if this was the intention of the editor to include works by younger authors or if it was just including badly written stories. This is not to say that younger authors write badly–it’s more that the stories in Clinical, Brutal… are not honed to within an inch of their life.

It could be that I am extremely bourgeois and only like ‘literary’ fiction. I do, however, appreciate gratuitous gore, junkies, sadistic sex and death by machine gun…and in that department this collection never let me down.

If you’re looking for something sharp, something shocking, or for things that go bump in the night, read this.

Official Christopher Nosnibor Web Site
Official Clinicality Press Web Site

A Philistine Press Round-Up: Reviews of “Dark Horse Pictures” by Andy Hopkins, “Valve Works” by Rob Sherman, “The Birth of Taliesin the Bard: A Tale” by Richard Britton, and “Entertainment” by Mr If

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

Spencer Dew

The meat and bones that start as dust will end up dusty in
the black
or blackly thought in backs of minds by mindless boys and
mindless girls
the world that keeps us warm at night is burning bones and
dusty bones
the crap we talked on ending days like ending men on
ending chairs
Monday starts with seven shades of this.
Monday starts with seven shades of this.

This is from the re-release of 2007’s Dark Horse Pictures, by Andy Hopkins, one of four new free PDF chapbooks from Philistine Press. Hopkins’s collection wrestles with the frustrations of teaching, the work of Guy Debord, and the discourse of evil. Along the way, there are poignant engagements with text messaging and fresh takes on the “Victorian guts” of sewer lines–“shallow modern/ intestinal cuts, gulping duodenum and plastic abject shadows./ There is a grid on grids, a grid of grids, a grid with grids.”–or a puddle of dying tadpoles, “prefrogs”–“a spill, a slick of apostrophes pooled;/ commas exiled/ from a dialogue that should have happened/ elsewhere. Or else never. They are at first a delight, a/ wonder./ Then a realisation. A souring miracle: they are unfrogging.”

Rob Sherman’s Valve Works pairs poems about different organs or body parts with sketches from Sarah Ogilvie and dictionary definitions, such that we can contrast the more literal take on the hallux (or big toe) with Sherman’s amusing rant at it: “You fat twin pig, gout-sponged, you spread/ Take your real estate from the less fortunate./ You bloat, you block, you foul menstruate.” Sherman dissects the anatomy in energetic swipes, from the heart–which looks “like a dog’s head, panting”–to the liver and the spleen. There, in the spleen, the poet sees mostly “a line of bumping, clumsy blood, quaking and true./ Past their use, rejected and obtuse, marching to their death in/ you.”

Richard Britton’s The Birth of Taliesin the Bard: A Tale offers straight narrative, albeit it fantastic, from a fabled past:

At the city of Emrys the priest arrived,
The city of pyromancers, where red-bearded
Druids converse in koine with turbaned
Alchemists and draw potent symbols
In the shell-sands for far-eastern sages
And fakirs from the valley of Indus,
Who sweat water from the Ganges,
As they lean over their kilns and forges.

This world of hemorrhaging pink moons, cuttlefish daggers, and metamorphosing, larger-than-life characters, the great bard is ultimately born, his origin story a parable for literature itself.

Of these four free PDF chapbooks, Entertainment is more defined by its vibrant authorial voice, which declares, “This took me roughly the same amount of time to write/ As it’s taking you to read./ You might think it’s flimsy, and a load of bollocks,/ But it’s the best I can do,/ And I think it’s quite good,/ So fuck you.” In a special “note to my readers” he writes, “You may think you know something about me because you’ve read these poems. I’d just/ like to say, you don’t know anything about me…. I would like to say I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks, but that’s not true. I want people to read these words over and over until they are dizzy, until they are sick.” Here is a representative sample, to test the effect, the poem “Fiona,” in full:

I did it doggy style with my friend Tony’s pregnant wife, Fiona. I ran my fingers over her spherical belly and felt their kid kick. We had to stop halfway through so she could go to the bathroom. I sat her down and held her hand while she went for a shit. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, like watching a butterfly flap its wings. For a brief moment, I wished I’d been that baby’s father, but I knew I wasn’t.

Official Rob Sherman Web Site
Official Richard Britton Web Site
Official Philistine Press Web Site

A Review of “Zen, Mississippi” by M. David Hornbuckle

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Spencer Dew

“Can sitting make a Buddha? In the search for enlightenment, the knight of Christ wanders, but he is too weary to wander. The Buddha sits, but he is too restless to sit. The French philosophers read the German philosophers who read the Greeks who read the world directly, and is anyone enlightened?”

Zen, Mississippi concerns itself with such questions to the extent that it follows two generations of men wrestling with reality, fantasy, alcohol abuse, and existential malaise on a sliding scale from dissatisfied coping to outright terror. Patrick, the protagonist, has come to recognize that “Maybe he just can’t deal with normal life, normal ‘reality,’ whatever that turns out to be.” He suspects that “reality” is itself a kind of Zen riddle, but such logic is perhaps too heavily influenced by the fact that Patrick is taking advice from figures such as Monkeyman, a creature manifest, invisibly, from out of his own childhood imagining. Sitting on the handlebars of Patrick’s bike, Monkeyman lectures on the relation between “enlightenment” and everyday life, love and the Buddha, absurdity and the lack of distinction between internal and external worlds.

This is the tone of Zen, Mississippi, a novel that follows a father and son’s dual immersion in a fantasy world, “the parallel universe created by a childgod…where the absurd becomes rational and the rational becomes moot.” There is a more than sufficient amount of philosophical name-dropping and recurring meditations on the word “Zen,” all in the service of trying to describe and delineate the paranoia and hallucinations that befall these two men, generally after a few drinks:

The jukebox whirs and spits, zenzenzenzen, a motorcycle throttle; the bend of a whammy bar on an overdriven electric guitar breaks into a frenzied drumbeat. The deep vibrations stir him to move. He drains the last drops of bourbon from his glass and approaches the bar. Where once there was a redheaded Irish bartender, there is now a man-sized lizard with blood red skin wiping the counter surface with a stained white rag. Dobby is accustomed to this. For the last couple of years, all bartenders become this beast after a few rounds. And the old men at the bar become large apes, grizzle chimpanzees and brash orangutans grunting and screeching at each other in their various primate languages.

Just as one should beware the advice of Monkeymen, generally, when the denizens of a bar spontaneously morph into beasties, one should interpret this as a sign that it’s time to hail a cab for home.

This book, expressing “a debt of appreciation to therapy and 12-step programs”  in a note at the start, certainly has a therapeutic feel, focused, as it is, on the working out of very personal (reptilian) demons. But, in the end, there’s little sense of enlightenment here save that what starts drunk ends sober, still pondering the relations between “realities” so idiosyncratically personal many readers may find it hard to empathize, or follow.

Official M. David Hornbuckle Web Site

A Review of “We Are Never as Beautiful as We Are Now” by Adam Gallari

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

Spencer Dew

“This used to be fun,” thinks one of Adam Gallari’s characters, pushing against pain to continue a run, on the verge of some new assessment of his present condition, some new relation to his past. Along with wary and would-be artists, this book is populated by baseball players and former baseball players, their position in the world a metaphor for the struggles faced throughout. The characters in We Are Never as Beautiful as We Are Now grapple with the fact that they are not now what they were before, and the reality that pleasure, love–even the framework of identity–exist, inaccessibly, in the past.

In these stories, memories get deliberately hazed through fiction or strong drink and nostalgia exerts a tug “for things lost that he’s never had the chance to experience,” because that which was once tasted and lost is too painful to contemplate. The men in these pages grow old, or come to the slow but sudden realization that they’ve already grown old some time ago, as they pant through the park trying to keep up with their image of themselves, or retch their guts against an alley wall in a vain attempt to keep pretending.

The banal tragedy of the passage of time is one of Gallari’s main subjects, with attention to the varied ramifications thereof, the small domestic betrayals, the perversions created by the slippage of the past. Two men lean against the same bar, contemplating different women, discussing different sports. A novelist of some dated fame waits for an aspiring writer to relay the details of his last night’s bedroom conquest. Gallari has a touch for describing the distance between people, for narrating the constant masquerade of denial and the collapse that happens after, when the masks slip, when the man can’t pick his head up off the bar or the father awkwardly advices his son about the future.

The writhing of consciousness find voice here, too: “You’ve tried not to think about her. You’ve tried to think of everything and anything else, but even filling your head with thoughts of possible distractions leads your mind to realize that it’s doing so just to distract itself, so you wonder if, now, it would just be easier to think about her.”

In the strongest story, “Chasing Adonis,” told entirely inside a second-person point of view, a man obsessed with winning back his ex-girlfriend seeks transformation through the gym, through abandonment of food, pushing harder and harder until his thighs bang against the treadmill safety bar. Denial here becomes fixation, a consuming task, doomed from the start to fail at its ostensible goal. The girl will never come back, and eventually the man’s knees will go. In the meantime, “You move onto tuna fish and skinless chicken breast, always plain,” as other Gallari characters move on to Johnny Walker or axing down maple trees. Such resistance may be futile, but the exertion of energy is, itself, a way of avoiding the issue. We Are Never as Beautiful as We Are Now, its title another cleverly angled take on time’s inevitable and inevitably destructive passage, highlights both the futility and the humanity of such protest.

Official Ampersand Books Web Site

Reviews of “Assault on the Senses” and “Training the Problem” by Michael P. Ferrari

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

Spencer Dew

Assault on the Senses, a reprinting of a 2007 novel chronicling the travails of one Kalvin Gray, a college frat boy who starts the countdown for happy hour before he begins his first class and ends up–in no small part because he’s shuffling through life drunk, judged by most people as an asshole–framed for a sexual assault he did not commit. The conversational tone of the narration is its strength, though, at times, having a narrator who thinks idiotic thoughts and readily relays them to the reader can be a bit like following an assinine Twitter feed–“I hooked up with the Hot, Liberal Arts Chick. I’m fucking awesome.” Or, “It’s really hard to blow smoke rings. A lot of people say the trick is to use your tongue. Others say you can only do it by curling your upper lip downwards. I try both. Nothing.” Or the frequent assessment of assorted women as “friggin’ hot. Just plain hot.”

Yet Ferrari is able to turn Kalvin into an endearing character precisely because of this constant, stream-of-thought intimacy. The doofus who, early in the novel, is relishing his own classroom farts while simultaneously rhapsodizing about how much he loves “freshman girls in all their slutty, undressed goodness,” becomes a richly conceived character on the brink of, maybe, growing up. “At the risk of sounding like a teenage girl writing poetry for her English 101 class,” he says, before saying something he actually feels. “I mean, I’m starting to think that the reason I–not just me, but all of us–the reason all of us drink so much and sleep all day is because we’re just too friggin’ scared. We’re too friggin’ scared and stupid to look into the future, because we know we’re all totally unprepared, and we’re going to get eaten alive, not by the ‘real world’ but by life in general, and it sucks. It just sucks, plain and simple.”

Kalvin’s story continues in the novella “What Ever Happened to Kalvin L. Gray?” included in Training the Problem along with stories about blackmailing priests, a female narrator relaying the step-by-step details of her shooting death, a dog inspired to racial consciousness by watching John Singleton movies, some pure murderous viciousness, a stoner’s story of a crusty hotel hook-up, and a series of “Letters from the Emotionally Retarded.” Unfortunately, the tone here is more like early Kalvin, the guy who, in Assault on the Senses assessed “how serious” the charges against him were this way: “I realize there’s a good chance I’ll never get laid in Berkshire University again. I have almost a year and a half left before I graduate. Granted, my sex life is about as active as a one-legged runner, but the idea of being strictly banned from any possibility of sex is, well, scary.”

In Training the Problem the poignancy of emotional disconnection is too often dulled by the character of the narrators. While “haunted” by past relationships, racism, misogyny, emotional numbness or straightforward cruelty make these folks hard to take. As one, characteristic, narrator says of his situation: “No matter how charming you may be, there’s no way you can turn a story about your dick causing a super-tight vagina to split open and belch blood into a decent pick-up line.” This narrator, it should be noted, was trying to use the story to help win a “rebound” relationship. Not that Problem doesn’t also feature a strong tone of melancholy under all the belching and drinking, along with some reflections on growing older, but it misses the innocent notes sounded in Assault, like Kalvin’s pondering, in that novel, that if “Guys can ejaculate from their dreams; is it so hard to believe they can get worked up and let down by them as well?”

Indeed, the Kalvin Gray of the novella, “What Ever Happened to Kalvin L. Gray?” isn’t nearly as compelling as he was in Assault. The trappings are familiar, as the novella opens with Kalvin waiting for “death by dehydration,” surrounded by the same “crumpled cigarette packets, mangled and crushed beer cans and the standard half-empty waters I’ve come to use as ashtrays over the years.” His senior year at Berkshire University, still drunk, still widely considered an asshole, Kalvin again finds himself the target of persecution, though in this case the problem is the campus Women’s Center, campaigning–without regard to evidence–that he should be registered as a sex offender. Our protagonist discovers this fact when he prepares to dump a load of Women’s Center literature in the trash. “I felt almost righteous trashing pamphlets that indirectly trashed my penis,” he says, taking time to survey the pages enough to know that under the “garbage” about “the several different flavors of rape a girl can encounter” were “weepy statistics” and “numbers and facts that could easily be used to pad a feminist manifesto against the penis. Standard stuff you’d expect from the types of girls who probably insist on changing the spelling of women to ‘womyn,’ just so there’s no trace of men in their gender: stuff about men making more than woman in the world place, stuff about glass ceilings, shit like that.” Whatever you think of Kalvin’s tirade, it’s hard to imagine a man who, months before, ran into heavy legal trouble and the sort of crisis that might well wise a person up, to here be so dismissive and hostile. “Acquaintance rape?” thinks Kalvin. “I don’t even know what that is.” It’s either too much vitriol, or too little sense–in any case, there’s nothing here to care about, to empathize with. Along with that distance comes a falsity, as we, as readers, are expected to believe that this is the same narrator we came to know in some detail before, who can here say of himself, “Imagine a portrait of the stereotypical poor college student, pour a couple of unnecessary pints of alcohol into his bloodstream and put a comic-book thought bubble over his head with the word ‘Duh’ in it, and there I am.” Only, jarringly, there’s no irony in such self-assessment, and, sadly, instead of a comic “Duh” here Kalvin is saying “Acquaintance rape? I don’t even know what that is.”

Assault on the Senses is in every way a stronger book, but likely fans of it will check out the other as well, and perhaps, with enough such fans, Ferrari will return to Kalvin Gray in the future. Here’s hoping that characterization advances the poor guy a little, letting him learn a few things from those experiences that, as he says in Assault, “blew my brain open.” In Assault he uses this phrase to describe his last visit home, a revelation of sorts, or at least a nudge toward one. At the breakfast table, Kalvin, a twenty-one-year-old man, dug his hand into a cereal box, fishing for a prize:

I pulled my hand out with the toy in tow, little pieces of Apple Jacks falling and bouncing off the tabletop like hunks of flavored moon rocks falling to Earth. I tore into the plastic, fingers crossed for a T-Rex.

“Aw, dammit!”  I yelled in a fit. My mom, who was sitting across from me the whole time, who saw me probe an innocent box for a cheap plastic dinosaur, just looked up at me. “I already have the brontosaurus,” I explained to her.

Without notice, my mom stood up from the table, shook her head and said one thing: “When I was your age, I was already married and had a kid.”

Official Michael P. Ferrari Web Site
Official Blue Room Publishing Web Site