about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Sunshine State
A Review of Sunshine State
by Sarah Gerard

Spencer Dew

Gerard’s gift—of observation and expression—is an eye for a certain sort of poignantly fervent desire, desperate and raw, hell-bent and no-holds-barred, blind to consequence and blank in terms of anything like a plan, just longing, just passion, just consuming—even crippling—want. If this sounds like tragedy, it’s certainly close. The situations here are tragic, whether Gerard speaks primarily in the register of journalist (on the relentless criminalization of homelessness in Pensacola, for instance, or the willful deception—and self-deception—of those duped into the DeVos Amway scheme) or of memoirist (the volume’s opening piece, a love letter to an old friend, compoundly-lost, reaches moments of sublimity), but the characters resist the characterization of tragedy even as they fail to avoid tragic fates. Imagine Oedipus defiant. Consider the image of the woman who “climbs onstage at a strip club and dances naked with a tampon string dangling from her vagina.” Oedipus’s terror had roots in shame; the anti-heroines and anti-heroes of these pieces eschew common sense. They may get weary, but they remain shameless and admirably, if absurdly, unfettered by their shitty circumstances.

There’s the nondenominational minister who dedicates himself to feeding the homeless, an imitation of Christ, and to being a writer, in and out of jail. When he prays, “Lord, . . . let us kick some ass. In Jesus’s name,” it almost reads as a demand, a pep talk to the Almighty from the battered human calling His shots. When a morning’s batch of eggs is made with filler egg powder, for baking, instead of the kind of eating alone, the result “looks like dog diarrhea,” but a disaster can’t be a disaster if it’s met with a positive attitude. On this note, the author recounts her childhood in a New Thought church—the American metaphysics of self-help that gave birth to Christian Science and Norman Vincent Peale. The guiding sentiment shapes her still: “I refuse to live a life of hopelessness. I was a child of God—and therefore I was successful, I was prosperous. I repeated this silently to myself. I believed in the power of I Am.”

Yet for all the pluck of selling birth control placebos as ecstasy, on the beach, the chemicals are different, the consequences real. The metaphysics of New Thought is, after all, part and parcel of American neoliberal capitalism, a myth of the individual as untouched by history, by structures and institutions. This is the myth of Rich DeVos, who names his company as an abbreviation of the American Way, and who does not hesitate to extend his philosophy into current events, stating in the 1980s that AIDS patients deserved their lot. The disease, he insisted, “wasn’t like cancer,” because it was the result of personal choice.

Gerard seems to wish that personal choice were that powerful, has a sympathy for those who believe themselves, regardless of ample evidence to the contrary, that they are captains of their own fate. There’s the man who runs the bird sanctuary, a man whose love for birds—if love is the word—slides into pathology. He’s a hoarder, subjecting animals to torturous, filthy conditions as part of his obsession with keeping them alive. There’s another theme in this collection, this desire to defy passing of time, to cling: “Forever” “& ever” are the tattoos the author and her childhood friend got inked into their skin; “And I should say that, at a glance, my text appeared to spell ‘Beaver’—too perfect that yours bore the autonomous word while mine was dependent.” There’s an inescapability to the past here, that even while it slips away, it still comes back to hurt you. A double injury: abandonment and assault. A twenty-seven-year-old warrant comes back to bite you as you’re about to board a plane to a better life. Your old friend’s daughter sends you an email late at night, so you send a particular, perfected narrative of your life back, with images, just to make her hurt. You spend an hour talking about the work of saving birds, of keeping them safe, then you finish you cigarettes and flick them to the ground, “where, looking back, any number of birds could have eaten them.”

But mainly, in these pieces, you go forward, animated if not guided by ardent hope. If only things could turn out like they did for that rabbit, in a story Gerard retells as an allegory for the inimitable and unbroken characters she gives us here, the Velveteen Rabbit; in that story, after all the shit and fever and fire and loss, things work out kind of all right, right? That’s the power of positive thinking, urging you to take another spin on that pole...

Official Sarah Gerard Web Site
Official Harper Perennial Web Site

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