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Ad for “The G.O.D. Club” in Madison Magazine

GodAD

Ad for The G.O.D. Club appears in the September 2014 issue of Madison Magazine.

The G.O.D. Club

Now Available from
Cambridge Book Review Press

G-Club

The G.O.D. Club
A Story by Dwight Allen

$2.99 Kindle ebook

“The G.O.D. Club” is a new short story by Dwight Allen, author of two novels, Judge (2003) and The Typewriter Satyr (2009), and a collection of short stories, The Green Suit, reissued in 2011. Bonus features of this exclusive ebook single from Cambridge Book Review Press include an introduction by Wisconsin State Journal columnist Doug Moe, and an afterword by novelist and poet Dale M. Kushner (The Conditions of Love). Also included is “The Thread of It,” an excerpt from Dwight Allen’s memoir-in-progress.

“The unnamed loss, the unspoken terror in ‘The G.O.D. Club’ is the loss of time itself.”—Dale M. Kushner, author of The Conditions of Love.

Shotgun Lovesongs

shotgunSpent a pleasurable Sunday barnstorming through Nickolas Butler’s buzzworthy debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs. My baby boomer sensibilities detected a Big Chill for Millennials familiarity to some of the material, but this was always offset by Butler’s keen eye for rural Wisconsin seasonal detail (“The October air filled with corn dust enough to make each sunset a postcard, with colors like a benign nuclear explosion”), and, above all, the novel’s clever use of the mythology that’s grown up around the music of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who shares with Butler the hometown of Eau Claire.

From Shame to Sin

From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity
Kyle Harper
Harvard University Press 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

FromShametoSinKyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity from Harvard University Press is rigorously academic in its range and depth. The good news for the rest of us is how lucid and enjoyable Harper’s writing is throughout. He describes, for instance, the escalating denunciations of Roman carnality by early theologians as an “arms race of sexual invective.” Monks helping to reform the life of a prostitute are “like a modern sports team that courts away its rival’s most valuable player.”

While pagan Rome represented a more open sexual culture—legal brothels, tolerance of homosexuality, equality of property and divorce rights between men and women—Harper is quick to remind us that their worldview and economy were framed by slavery and a strict hierarchy of social status.

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Photo: Roman Terracotta Erotic Lamp, c. 2nd century CE. Value: $6,000.

On the one hand, eroticism’s secular deregulation lost out to the Church’s decreeing procreative marriage as the singular outlet for sexual expression. However, Harper also sees epochal societal gains with Christianity’s forceful condemnation of prostitution and the redemptive cloistering and rebuilding of broken lives. But there’s plenty of tyrannical exploitation on both sides in From Shame to Sin to suggest that abuse and victimization were no less disentangled from Eros two millennia ago than today.

Harper, a 2007 Harvard Ph.D. history grad, is currently an associate professor in the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Classics and Letters. More than the work of a first-rate historian of antiquity, From Shame to Sin is equally a supreme work of literary criticism. Harper’s analysis of ancient Greek novels and the Apocryphal Acts and Gospels—with a nod to influential literary critics like Northrop Frye and Stephen Greenblatt—is fascinating for the manner in which he detects recurring themes and shifts in emphasis that are shown to emerge alongside cultural changes.

Nightmare Alley

nightmarealleyCopyright litigation kept Nightmare Alley (1947) out of circulation and generally unavailable for home viewing until a much-heralded DVD release in 2005. Since then, its reputation has grown from cult favorite to film noir classic. Running nearly two hours with a generous budget and A-list cast, Nightmare Alley is an anomaly for its genre (defined by crime novelist James Ellroy, in his introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century, as “cheap novels and cheap films about cheap people”). Swashbuckling matinee idol Tyrone Power leveraged his stardom to lobby for the starring role as carny con artist Stanton Carlisle, whose sole redemptive quality is his genuine bafflement—“I wonder why I’m like that?”—as to why he’s compelled again and again to act on his most ruthless instincts. The sexual heat generated between Tyrone Power and the film’s three supporting actresses is combustible and gives Nightmare Alley its strongest jolt of noir cred: ripe-to-bursting Joan Blondell as sideshow mentalist Zeena; Coleen Gray as Molly, a.k.a. Electra, scandalous to county sheriffs because of the tin-foil two-piece she wears in her sparks-a-flying electric-chair act; and, higher up the social ladder where Stanton longs to dwell, the movie’s femme fatale, Lilith (Helen Walker), a crooked psychotherapist to the wealthy.

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Tyrone Power & Joan Blondell in Nightmare Alley.

Even with a prestige director in Edmund Goulding, and lurid expressionistic lighting by cinematographer Lee Garmes, Nightmare Alley was not a success. Tyrone Power subsequently returned to more conventional roles, which is a shame, because he’s clearly enjoying himself here, especially in the opening carnival scenes, all working-class T-shirt and chewing-gum and an oil-drum’s worth of pomade slicking his hair. In his early thirties at the time, Power initially seems beyond the ideal age for the role of Stan Carlisle, who is a youthful twenty-one in the first half of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. The actor’s full-on commitment to the role, however, sells the characterization as handily as Stan’s doggedly mastered sleight-of-hand scarf and coin tricks. Power doesn’t evince a comparable set of skills in later scenes that are actually keyed closer to the actor’s age. Stan’s descent into alcoholism feels abrupt and unconvincing, in spite of our having been tipped off and conditioned to expect it. We’re meant to see parallels both to the drunken carny shill Pete Krumbein (played with aching pathos by veteran stage and silent film actor Ian Keith), whose death Stan inadvertently brings about earlier in the film, and the specter of the sideshow geek that so forcefully haunts the novel and the movie.

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1949 paperback edition of Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. Cover art: James Avati.

The geek is a severely alcoholic freak-show performer who earns his daily allotment of booze by savagely biting off the heads of live chickens for the amusement of wide-eyed rubes. Nightmare Alley never for a moment lets us forget the addiction-addled beast that presumably resides within each of us. The geek’s frenzied delirium tremens screams echo subliminally on the soundtrack as if erupting from Stan’s unconscious during several doom-laden moments throughout the movie. Alcohol unleashes monsters in Nightmare Alley. No amount of psychological insight is adequate to quelling or even comprehending our primal depravity. Psychotherapy, like telepathy and spiritualism, is exposed here as just another con game for exploiting human weakness.

William Lindsay Gresham’s novel doesn’t waste its breath suggesting that alcoholic Pete Krumbein might have benefited from taking “the cure,” a plot point added to the movie by ace screenwriter Jules Furthman in all likelihood to soften the story’s cynicism. For every pulled punch in the script adaptation of Gresham’s still shockingly grim novel (Nick Tosches, in his 2010 intro to the reissued book, goes as far as to suggest that Gresham may have been binge drinking while writing it), there is often a compensating layer of irony or ambiguity. At the film’s finish, where viewers usually note a more hopeful outcome than in the novel, our worst expectations are momentarily overturned by a glimmer of rescue—or is it enabling?—in the downward spiral of Stan’s now nightmarish life. In our guts we all know what’s in store for Stanton Carlisle. His fate was sealed the moment he first set eyes on the geek.

Europe Central

Europe Central
William T. Vollmann
Viking 2005

Reviewed by Bob Wake

EuropeCentralCoverA recent painful outbreak of shingles on my left upper torso and back rendered me unfit for much of anything but Vicodin and bed rest for a couple of weeks. Mostly I wanted seclusion, earplugs to blunt neighborhood traffic and lawnmowers, and an enormous all-consuming novel to occupy my focus. I had earlier this year tackled Roberto Bolaño’s extraordinary epic about Mexican border murders and literary obsession, 2666, on my Kindle. I felt cocky and confident I could do the same with William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central, an 800-page 2005 National Book Award-winning novel about the Eastern Front in WWII and, perhaps the most celebrated element of the book, composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s soul-crushing struggle with creative expression under the jackboot of Soviet-era Communism. My Kindle has so spoiled me that although I already own Vollmann’s book in hardback, I downloaded a digital copy and began click-click-clicking away, often late into the night, blissfully dosed on hydrocordone 5/325.

Europe Central combines deeply researched verisimilitude and at times disorienting and highly effective surrealism. (For instance, a chapter titled “Airlift Idylls,” a 47-page Jungian representation of postwar East Germany’s totalitarian “unconscious” personified as Shostakovich’s self-punishing “shadow” assassinating the composer over and over again Groundhog Day-style.) The months’ long Battle of Stalingrad and siege of Leningrad are told from both the German and Russian sides in multiple perspectives, pampered high command to malnourished and frostbitten frontline soldiers to civilians and combatants slaughtered and piled into mass graves. Vollmann writes from character-driven voices—government bureaucrats and secret police hacks with rigid political biases—giving the novel a kind of cognitive dissonance that parallels the conflicted harmonic dissonances of Shostakovich’s most radical musical works (banned or denounced by Soviet authorities as “formalist,” “repulsive” and “ultra-individualist”).

 

Best listened to in a windowless room, better than best in an airless room—correctly speaking, a bunker sealed forever and enwrapped in tree-roots—the Eighth String Quartet of Shostakovich (Opus 110) is the living corpse of music, perfect in its horror. Call it the simultaneous asphyxiation and bleeding of melody. The soul strips itself of life in a dusty room.

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William T. Vollmann at 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony. Photo: Robin Platzer/Twin Images.

The novel is dedicated to the Serbian writer Danilo Kiš (1935-1989), author of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, a collection of short stories that Vollmann has long prized (he wrote the afterword for a 2001 Dalkey Archive reprint edition). Vollmann’s sensibility is uniquely his own, but it’s not difficult to discern the influence of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. Kiš’s stories, with their interlocking storylines and recurring characters, are concerned with the blinkered psychological makeup of communist and fascist “true believers” and the ideological masks that excuse and even encourage murderous depravity and anti-Semitism. Both authors provide penetrating insight into the cultural megalomania and racist folklore that underpin the Holocaust. Accepting the 2005 National Book Award for Europe Central, Vollmann said:

I really have tried for many years to read myself into this horrible event and imagine how anyone could have done this, whether I could have done this, and that was what this book was about. I’m very happy that it’s over and I don’t have to think about it any more.

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Harper’s Magazine, September 2013

What Vollmann has had to think about and what became the topic of an article the author published last month in Harper’s, “Life as a Terrorist: Uncovering my FBI file” (paywalled online, unfortunately, but the issue is worth seeking out at your local library), is the startling revelation that for years he was under surveillance by the U.S. government. Turns out that—unbeknownst to him at the time—Vollmann was an FBI suspect in the 1990s Unabomber case and, later, a Homeland Security suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks. While in no way is Vollmann in his Harper’s piece comparing U.S. domestic spying to Russian political repression, it’s impossible not to find his FOIA-obtained (and heavily redacted) FBI file eerily prefigured in the portrait of Shostakovich’s anxiety over surveillance in Europe Central. As Vollmann writes in Harper’s:

Were I to be shown in accurate detail why it was necessary for me to be kept under surveillance, possibly for the rest of my life, I might be able to accept these invasions of my privacy for the collective good. The ostensible purpose of this surveillance is to protect us, and our freedoms, from terrorists. What remains uncertain, since secret, is how terrifying the terrorists presently are, and to what extent rights and liberties may be undermined in order to save us from them.

Fox 8: A Story

Fox 8: A Story
George Saunders
Random House 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Fox8According to the L.A. Times literary blog Jacket Copy, George Saunders chose to leave “Fox 8” out of his recently published collection Tenth of December because he felt it was “asking one stretch too many from the reader.” I get that. In fact, I much prefer reading the occasional Saunders story in The New Yorker rather than compiled in short story collections. His stories, artfully spun and eccentrically self-contained, can seem overly precious and “worked up” when set side by side. That said, he’s written more than his share of masterful short stories. “Fox 8,” which began life as a failed children’s book, is as memorable as anything Saunders has written, which is to say it will stay with you because of qualities it shares with timeless, even mythic storytelling.

George Saunders. Photo: Chloe Aftel.

George Saunders. Photo: Chloe Aftel.

The story is narrated by a visionary fox struggling to convince his starving den comrades that their only chance for survival is to strike out in quest of food at the newly constructed shopping mall that has displaced their habitat. “Fox 8” is actually an epistolary fable, written as a beseeching letter to the humans whose language Fox 8 has learned, if not precisely mastered, as a kind of earthy Chaucerian Middle English: “Stay in your awesum howses, play your music lowd, however you make it play so lowd, yap your Yuman jokes, sending forth your crood laffter into the nite.” Also worth noting about this very cool 99-cent ebook are the wonderful illustrations by graphic designer Chelsea Cardinal (the sharp cover design is hers as well).

The Tiger’s Wedding

The Tiger’s Wedding
James Dante
Martin Sisters Publishing 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Tigers-Wedding-Front-Cover-187x300“Moments of conventional bliss had a way of eluding me,” declares Jake St. Gregory, a young American accountant from dreamland, U.S.A.—Burbank, California—working as an English teacher in Seoul, South Korea. Jake, the 30-year-old protagonist and narrator of James Dante’s wry and wise debut novel, The Tiger’s Wedding, will thoroughly test the multicultural limits of convention and bliss by the finish of his tale.

There’s a tangled romance at the heart of The Tiger’s Wedding, with Jake falling in love with a married Korean woman, an aspiring musician with two young children. Dante finds enough page-turning complications and believable twists to both keep the plot percolating efficiently and to largely sidestep cliches. He grounds his story in solid characterization and skillful depictions of cultural and familial conflicts.

James Dante. Photo: Martin Sisters Publishing.

It’s no surprise to learn from his author’s bio that Dante, a Northern Californian by way of New York, spent time teaching in South Korea. The novel is lovingly awash in quotidian details of cuisine and landscape, as well as nightlife high and low. The story avoids lapsing into travelogue while at the same time taking Western readers to locations we’d be curious to see ourselves. Whether or not The Tiger’s Wedding was completed before the viral K-pop YouTube sensation of “Gangnam Style,” Dante’s description of the song’s locale provides an interesting gloss on its Day-Glo milieu:

We rode the subway into Gangnam, a chic section of Seoul. Even below ground, imitation Renaissance statues squirted water into flood-lit pools. Walking from the subway stop to street level involved passing boutiques … I had heard the stories about young Gangnam males who caroused in the nightclubs and eateries, terrorizing the staff and lighting cigarettes with money.

More ominous is Jake’s darkly funny visit to the Korean Demilitarized Zone with a photojournalist (a sardonic American from Columbus, Ohio whose character functions at times as Jake’s bad conscience):

On the other side of the border stood a 500-foot flagpole, which supported a 600-pound North Korean flag. Even with the steady wind, the flag hung limp from its own weight. Amplified rhetoric echoed from the enemy side. Through powerful loudspeakers, North Korea continuously reminded the Southern troops that the North had created a Workers’ Paradise. Big deal. In the South they drove Hyundais and listened to rap.

Dante’s strongest creation is the character of Jae-Min, the 33-year-old working mother and abused wife whom Jake befriends and whose life becomes increasingly enmeshed with his own. Jae-Min’s complexity keeps the story off-balance in a compelling manner: she can’t comfortably resolve the multiple conflicts complicating her life. Dante is at his best in showing us her resilience and allowing us, along with Jake, to second-guess—often with shameful inaccuracy—Jae-Min’s behavior.

Labor protests and a growing anti-Americanism in Seoul heighten the climactic sections of the novel. (“Lines of riot police, resembling a thousand Darth Vaders, pushed back with even greater force, knocking people to the ground.”) There’s much to recommend here, from the novel’s careful attention to detail and the shifting allegiances of its characters, to its cultural and political backdrop. The strong excerpts from The Tiger’s Wedding that ran in Rosebud Magazine have more than fulfilled their promise.

If I Could Tell You

If I Could Tell You
Lee Jing-Jing
Marshall Cavendish Editions 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

IfICouldTellYou

From neglected children and lost young adults, to the developmentally disabled and the forgotten elderly, If I Could Tell You is narrated by a wide range of multigenerational and multicultural voices. The setting for Lee Jing-Jing’s graceful debut novel is both exotic and excruciating: A condemned public-housing apartment building in Singapore. Most of its residents have been relocated. The skeleton crew of remaining occupants comprise “the old, the poor, people who have had trouble finding a new home.” The novel’s opening pages include a jumper from the upper floors lying dead on the pavement below.

The jumper’s death haunts the neighborhood if not the television news. “I guess it was much too ordinary,” muses a middle-aged unemployed electronics engineer, dismayed by the absence of media coverage. His thoughts return again and again to the tragedy. Soon his dreams are enveloped in apocalyptic imagery:

Then I was on the ground, below the block of flats, looking up while the building leaned to the right, tossing my wife and daughter out of the naked window. The building crashed to the ground like a felled tree, but slowly, silently, as if the weight of it was nothing more than a browned leaf, a scrap of paper. All the while, I just stood and watched and did nothing, my hands hanging by my sides, my feet heavy as rocks. The dream stayed with me the rest of the day. I could hardly look at my wife and daughter during breakfast.

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Lee Jing-Jing. Photo: Marshall Cavendish Editions.

Lee Jing-Jing, currently living in Germany, has spoken in a newspaper interview about her public-housing upbringing in Singapore (the book’s cover photo, taken by the author, depicts a now-demolished block of apartments where her aunt once lived). While If I Could Tell You immerses us in poverty and broken lives, nothing here is sensationalized or made mawkish. The unwavering matter-of-factness of the storytelling yields enormous narrative and dramatic power as the novel unfolds.

Language barriers add to the isolation of some characters, such as an eighty-year-old Cantonese-speaking Chinese woman known in the neighborhood as “Cardboard Auntie” because she collects cardboard box scraps and sells them from a cart on the streets. Cardboard Auntie’s impoverished external life masks a roiling internal world of brutal memories (“Tch, I’ve seen worse. When the Japanese were here. Much worse”) and borderline delusional conversations with her deceased husband, whom she addresses as the Old One (“Old One, what do you want for lunch? Fan wat ze jook? Rice or porridge?”).

If I Could Tell You is not without a kind of mordant Hitchcockian humor: the jumper’s falling body is witnessed by multiple characters, often out of the corner of the eye, allowing the author to replay the gruesome event from a variety of subliminal perspectives (“something fell through the air, close enough that they felt and heard the whoosh as it went past them”). It’s a rare debut novel that’s written with such assured mastery of style and tone. The final pages give voice to a character whose despair is so complete that it would be unendurable for most of us. By focusing on the rich inner lives of its societal outcasts, If I Could Tell You tells us plenty: Lee Jing-Jing has written as fine a work of literary fiction as you’re likely to read this year.

 

Summer of the Cinetherapist

My story “Summer of the Cinetherapist” was a runner-up in the 2011 Wisconsin People & Ideas short story contest and subsequently appeared in Rosebud Magazine (Autumn 2011). Now it’s a CBR Press ebook single. And for a limited time it’s a free download from Amazon. (Otherwise, 99 cents.) I’ve outfitted the text with a handful of public domain film stills courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Curious fact: While films and publicity photos typically fall under copyright law, pre-1964 movie trailers often don’t, nor do trailer screenshots. Wikimedia, to my surprise and delight, has public domain trailer screenshots from movies that are integral to “Summer of the Cinetherapist,” such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Mildred Pierce, and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. Voilà: an illustrated edition of “Summer of the Cinetherapist.” Enjoy!


Mudstone

Recall: A Short Story

Walden West and the Twilight of Transcendentalism

eBook Single .99

Caffeine & Other Stories by Bob Wake

Order Caffeine to Go ($2.99 on Kindle)

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