[REVIEW] All that Glitters by Liza Treviño

all-that-glitters-coverKoehler Books , 2017

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN MARCANTONI

Alex is a survivor. This is both a simple statement about the main character of Liza Treviño’s debut novel, All that Glitters (Koehler Books), and a starting point for one of the most unexpected literary powerhouses to come out this year. Ms. Treviño does not just show us that Alex is a survivor, she also asks what circumstances lead her to being one? What does being a survivor mean to her? How does being a survivor help her, but more importantly, how does it hinder her? How does a person navigate through life when their biggest strength and biggest weakness are the same thing?

Asking such questions is what separates this book, a chronicle of a young South Texas woman seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood, from so-called “chick lit” and “beach reads” and makes it a literary tour-de-force. The structure of the story could have been a soap opera, as we meet Alex on the night that she becomes the first female and Latina to win both the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. The story is set in the 90s, which seems absurd at first, but later proves to be an asset. We see Alex in a limo with a man named Nick, who complements her night of glory by going down on her, a juxtaposition that appears to start the story within a feminine fantasy. Yet, Alex is miserable, anxious, and seemingly quite uncomfortable with this man who appears to be at her beck and call. There are some telling hints that this façade is not all that it seems, and without giving away too much, as the story backtracks to lead us back to this moment, we begin to see this scene in a new light, not as a moment of feminist triumph, but rather of a culmination of sexist power games and self-degradation, in which Alex is on the losing end.

The eighties/nineties time frame may seem like a strange place to set the novel, since racial progress in Hollywood was not a major issue at that time as it would be in the #OscarsSoWhite age, but the time period ends up illuminating a fascinating aspect about modern technology. Today, every offhand thing a person says online is kept in storage for use against them at a later time. How many times have scandals erupted over twenty year old quotes, after all? The fact is, Alex is a celebrity whose manner and behavior would be very hard to conceal in the Twitter/Facebook age. She has a personality that would incite a large number of trolls, although, given her personality, she would likely eat such people alive, she would nonetheless be a gossip magnet. While celebrity gossip has existed even before Hollywood (for some interesting research, look up 19th century gossip on theater actors; it is rather illuminating), the hyper-aware nature of social media would likely consume a person such as Alex, who is unapologetic about how she navigates the sexism of the Hollywood system. Aside from that, many of the relationships in the book hinge on the ability or inability to communicate. Treviño reminds those of us who lived during that time period just how difficult it could be to get a hold of a person, and how we take the instant gratification of our modern technology for granted. Yet this disconnect serves the story astonishingly well, adding tension to moments that nowadays would be resolved almost instantaneously, or adding to the loneliness of a particular character.

While Treviño places Alex and her friend Elly in many situations we have seen before—such as model parties turned sex parties, or directors taking advantage of female staff—her focus is always on further developing Alex’s personality. Alex is a character who, if she were a man, would be applauded for her ambition and confidence, but as a woman, is demonized. Treviño makes the smart decision to show that ambition itself is not Alex’s problem, but rather her need to survive at all costs is. She is a person who may need ambition and drive, but she also needs moral certitude and boundaries. One cannot maintain dignity if they are willing to compromise their deepest selves at a moment’s notice. The battle Alex wages is with herself—how can you be a powerful woman while maintaining your sovereignty and integrity? This is the question that haunts women of all professions. While Alex encounters and becomes the slave to misogynistic, hateful men, they are not as much the problem as her doubt in herself. That internal struggle is one that is too rarely explored, and Treviño pulls no punches in examining the dark side of femininity. Do not let the cover and promotional material for this book fool you, All that Glitters is a serious, complex, and stirring examination of the female soul that is uncompromising and unapologetic, much like its magnetic protagonist.

sec—;

BY STEPHANIE E. CREAGHAN

sec—; from Stephanie Creaghan on Vimeo.

Artist Statement:
My name is Stephanie E. Creaghan, and I’m a writer, curator and video artist based in Montreal. My work tries to show how violence inserts itself into different forms of communication. I use video as a two-prong attack against it, layering my writing and visuals to try and uncover the bad and the pain so we can talk about it.
Two years ago on April 17th, I quit drinking. Since this January, I’ve been working on a video piece that’s about that, or what it’s like to experience life with a layer of protection removed, with everything a little bit more raw/painful/great.
Stephanie E. Creaghan’s other work can be found at http://stephaniecreaghan.com/

[REVIEW] The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

yellowhouse

Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017

REVIEWED BY GABINO IGLESIAS

Chiwan Choi’s The Yellow House is one of those rare poetry collections that simultaneously serves as a manifesto of Otherness, a heartfelt and brutally honest journal of the most crucial moments of the poet’s life, and a celebration of the feelings, moments, and places that great poetry can invoke even when the writing itself is rooted in earthy, memory-tinged simplicity. As if that wasn’t enough, the collection is also an enjoyable recounting of how Choi found himself; a surprisingly cinematic series of vignettes that present the reader with loss, love, desire, friendship, family, and the city of Los Angeles.

The Yellow House opens with a simple three-line declaration that manages to set the mood for the rest of the collection while also proving themselves contradictory:

i chose poetry
over honesty
then lived this unremarkable life.

On one hand, Choi lets us know that there was a point in the journey of his life where a decision had to be made, and poetry won. However, the second line attempts to extract honesty from the process, and the poems that follow it prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Choi’s writing is very personal and honest. Furthermore, the word unremarkable is the exact opposite of what’s presented in this collection; poems filled with the agonies of every coming-of-age tale, the magic of a childhood spent navigating different cultures, and nights spent in a massive, violent, strange city that tends to become part of those who spend enough time in it. After reading the book, coming back to those three lines is crucial because they reveal the playful man behind the poems and let us know that we were on a sad, humorous, carefully constructed trip from the very first page.

Choi’s style is a mixture of sincere sharing and words being used to deal with certain memories. However, more important than his approachable, enjoyable style is the vulnerability Choi brings to the page. From dealing with death to plucking pieces of life that were happening in 1980, Choi treats his subjects and his writing with the same openness, and that candor translates into beautiful poetry:

this is stupid and emotional
and not poetic at all,
but life is so weird and beautiful
and i can’t tell whether it’s slipping away
or if it’s drowning me.
i can’t get out of bed
and if there was skin next to me
i would bury all the feelings in it
to some 80s soundtrack
like a non-stop loop
of the best of the church.

There is a yellow house in The Yellow House, and its appearances are just one of the many elements of cohesion that make this a very complete collection. The other cohesive elements are love, loss, memory, dreams, the role of parents, and the equal importance of things said and things left unsaid. Ultimately, the beauty of The Yellow House is that is personal and universal, and that allows the reader to recognize Choi for what he is: a survivor who’s seen many things, a son, and a man concerned with recognizing the things that came before and made him who he is now:

on the porch
drinking barley tea so my legs won’t fail
(that’s what mother says)
and, for a moment,
looking at my hand.
it is still.
sometimes it shakes,
trembles.
sometimes it holds
tight
the world.

On the most basic level, The Yellow House works because it is, simply put, beautiful poetry. Devastatingly beautiful. However, for those who care about the details of the genre, Choi also demonstrates a unique understanding of the way blank space can affect his message as well as a sense of rhythm that gives his work a particular flavor. These last elements make this collection a must read for fans of language and poetry and a superb addition to the Civil Coping Mechanisms catalog, which already includes some of the best contemporary poetry collections: There Should be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Lady Be Good by Lauren Hilger, and The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke, to name a few.

 

[REVIEW] Night in the Sun: Stories by Kyle Coma-Thompson

nmightinthesun

Dock Street Press, 2016

REVIEWED BY CALEB TRUE

Reading Kyle Coma-Thompson feels somehow universal, as though he were writing in a tradition of philosophical inquiry and his writing just happened to take the form of short stories. The pursuit of big questions, a sharp sense of humor, and sly skepticism unify the stories in Night in the Sun, Coma-Thompson’s second collection. Diverse in form, structure, tone, and perspective, and employing an eclectic host of characters and situations, these stories provide functional answers to the meaning of life, answers sometimes neither pretty nor conclusive, but always elegant.

The first two stories in the collection inhabit their subjects through memory, anecdote, and comparison. “Idaho” observes Djuka, a Hungarian history professor. Coma-Thompson’s unnamed narrator synthesizes Djuka’s character through various evidence—Djuka’s own offhand admissions, his history, his battle for career and marriage—with the ultimate goal of understanding Djuka’s impulses following a street massacre he witnesses in Florence. Memory is used similarly in “New Delta Future,” a short piece about a return to old haunts, but in this case memories are reanalyzed in an attempt to understand a town forsaken by time. Both “Idaho” and “New Delta Future” paint their resolutions circumspectly. In “Idaho,” the narrator reconciles Djuka’s academic elitism—and all elitism, possibly—while Djuka and the narrator drink at a workingman’s bar in an unnamed Midwestern town. The narrator’s consolations act as an answer to Djuka’s trauma of witness. “New Delta Future” employs a more intimate anecdote, poetically drawn, to point optimistically at the title, suggesting there is indeed a future for the dying town.

In “Back Pay (& Other Vagaries)” the character under scrutiny is fortune itself. This story tracks the ironies of economic success and failure of city planning and the dashing caprices of society’s striving dregs. It ends with a vagabond’s binge after hours in a Kroger grocery store. A folk hero, he is found the next day covered in vomit and dozing happily in the ceiling, having “sle[pt] it off above the heads of shoppers, swimming like a dead king in the circuits of their haloes.”

In a handful of stories in this collection, narrative is constructed seemingly out of history itself. For instance, in “Dread Elders,” a triptych story, a handshake between a cop and a young man holds an entire misunderstanding and potential for positive communion. At the end of “Judges,” the second piece in the triptych, when the ‘judge’ and the newlyweds are no longer furniture in each other’s tangential lives, one can sense a heavy emptiness in the intersection of strangers. In these vignettes, and more singularly in “Story for Fire,” the narrative reaches its critical point only beyond the page, as though Coma-Thompson has suspended the final piece of the puzzle, preserving in these stories an ouroborical permanence.

The collection closes with two excellent form plays; “Spite & Malice” and “Andrej Lives.” The first is a sixteen-part mosaic associating the risk-reward strategies of the card game Spite & Malice with a wide array of cultural and historical curios. This masterful story marries Coma-Thompson’s essayistic, analytic penchants to formal structure.  A narrative forms from this mélange as once-seeming coincidences are inextricably interwoven. “Andrej Lives” is written in the form of a reply letter to a friend who has asked his friends to provide him with reasons why he should not commit suicide. It’s meandering and beautiful, and as funny as it is touching; the sincerity of it makes the humor in “Andrej Lives” all the more biting. Perhaps we could decide, given the title, that Andrej does not in fact kill himself, but the heart of the story lies in the ambiguity through which it is written, all the way to the final aporia, in the final paragraph, which also happens to be the last line of the collection itself: “Tell us[, Andrej,] about Vitamin D, how prolonged exposure to sunshine is as dangerous as it is vital to your health.”

The stories in this collection where the author is addressing the reader feel the most original, the most unique. There are, by contrast, a handful of stories written from different perspectives and without the strong presence of the author coloring our understanding one way or the other. These more conventional stories are, on their own, excellent, and if I were to discover them in journals rather than in this collection, they would shine from the pages. However, next to Coma-Thompson’s more personal, weirder stuff—where the intense authorial presence elevates the stakes—these ‘normal’ stories feel comparably ordinary.

Coma-Thompson is at his strongest when he is working in this omniscient, essayistic mode, just kind of talking, pondering, all the while slyly assembling a narrative before our very eyes. It is difficult to accurately describe this unadulterated, unmanipulated form of narrative without getting messianic. In a way this type of storytelling feels like pure narrative, motive free. There is so much formulaic elicitation in modern short fiction, so much effort towards and emphasis on locking in a reader’s emotion early on in the hopes of hedging against a reader’s flimsy attention span. This strategy becomes tiresome; the real thing—what feels like honest storytelling—can feel like a good friend telling you a story, and that makes for effortless reading. In many of these stories, Coma-Thompson achieves something like that.

The stories in Night in the Sun ponder outsize questions. The ruminations of the author—on history, his subjects, narrative trajectory, the purpose of narration in general—seem at least as important as the stories themselves. Some have compared Coma-Thompson to Danilo Kiš and Alexei Remizov. I would add Bolaño to that list, for the Chilean’s preoccupation with the meaningfulness (or lack thereof) of art; and Kundera, for Coma-Thompson and Kundera are both explicit ponderers of the meaning of life. There is something very global in Coma-Thompson’s fiction, even when he’s addressing the pitiful tribulations of provincial America, one of Thompson’s preferred arenas for grappling with life’s penetrating absurdities. This philosophical grappling is crucial, and is part of the reason this collection stands out. Without this kind of grappling, modern fiction risks irrelevance, becomes twee. At the same time, Coma-Thompson understands that fiction must be an escape from certain realities, an opiate against life. Coma-Thompson has navigated a middle ground to that paradox of literature: Night in the Sun feels simultaneously like an escape from certain realities and an intensification of them.

Haints, Horrors, and Hilarity: JD Wilkes on The Vine That Ate the South

 

INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

Vine-That-AteIf you grew up in the rural South, you’ve probably heard tales of big cats, vampires, the Bell Witch, flesh-eating kudzu, and other terrors that go bump in the night. You may have even encountered some yourself, though probably not all in a single outing. Unfortunately for the protagonist of The Vine That Ate the South––and fortunately for us––he did.

Author JD Wilkes spared hardly a Southern folk demon in his debut novel, The Vine That Ate the South. It’s a Homeric tale of going into The Deadening, a patch of haunted woods in western Kentucky, in hopes of coming out not only alive, but with an adventure tale so heroic as to woo his One True Love away from his sworn enemy.

The ultimate destination of our unnamed hero is The Kudzu House, where legend has it an elderly couple was eaten alive by carnivorous kudzu and their skeletons can still be seen strung up by the hungry vine, like two burned out bulbs on a strand of morbid Christmas lights.

When the myriad of Southern haints and frightful creatures are encountered alongside the more corporeal menaces, like trigger-happy hunters and murderous Masons, you’re not entirely certain what’s real and what’s not––and that’s where the magic happens. Rather than a moonlight-and-magnolias glorification of the South, Wilkes shows just how fearsome it can be––literally and figuratively.

The Vine That Ate the South is not only suspenseful, but also uproariously funny. Whether he’s recounting a run-in with a lisping, overly eager pastor or remembering the day his girlfriend-stealing nemesis found his family’s “shit knife,” our protagonist is like that hilarious uncle who always tells the best stories, genuinely unaware of his natural talent for comedy.

The style and tone of the novel, as well as its deft storytelling, mirrors the music of the band The Legendary Shack Shakers, of which Wilkes is the frontman. With the band’s punk, blues, and rockabilly tunes, lyrics rife with apocalyptic Biblical references and Wilkes’ onstage persona as a Southern gothic preacher, The Vine That Ate the South is like a Legendary Shack Shakers show contained between two French flaps.

I talked to Wilkes about his writing process, his influences and his varied artistic talents.

Shunnarah: I so enjoyed The Vine That Ate the South. The story kept me turning pages well after I probably should’ve gone to bed. The novel reads like a bard finally wrote down the South’s oral mythic history. Were you conscious of that bard-like quality as you were writing? How do you think the oral tradition plays into Southern culture?

Wilkes: I wanted the book to read in a “high prose,” florid manner that mirrored the lushness of the Kudzu. The words needed to overwhelm you at times. But I also tried to cut it back and clear room––much like the characters do with their machetes––by allowing plain speech in spots. That way you hopefully get a nice balance of old-school verbosity and simple Southern humor and wisdom.

Shunnarah: I know The Vine That Ate the South wouldn’t be considered a humor book, but there were parts where I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. I’m curious to hear more about your thoughts on how humor factors into Southern culture and storytelling.

Wilkes: I think humor is or should be a part of Southern writing. Flannery O’Connor was satirical and humorous, of course. John Faulkner is a bigger influence on me than his brother William.

Irvin S. Cobb, from Paducah, Kentucky, is too. To write about a place with such an intense history, one must occasionally pop air into it. Levity is what keeps novels like mine from descending into depressing historical fiction or even horror.

Shunnarah: It seems like going exploring in the woods and seeing at least one big cat or mythical creature is a Southern rite of passage. I say that having explored some creepy shacks and seen a big cat or two myself. I’m curious to know if your own explorations and otherworldly encounters fueled some of the scenes in The Vine That Ate the South.

Wilkes: Yes, I also enjoy walking around in abandoned places in the woods, ha! Careful we don’t get shot!

One place nearby is an actual ghost town in the woods along Clarks River. It’s called Carter Mill (it’s talked about in the novel) and there’s nothing like letting your imagination run wild through all those old dilapidated timbers and tar paper. You can even make up your own stories about what happened there… mix it in with the truth a little. Let the storytelling take on a life of its own. It’s something I did as a kid and still do.

Shunnarah: I noticed that the unnamed protagonist calls his companion in adventure, Carver, “crazy” on several occasions. Though Carver is his best friend, he’s self-aware enough to know Carver has a few screws loose. As someone who calls the South home––but who has left, traveled the world, and come back––are there times when you feel like an outsider like the protagonist, too?

Wilkes: I think I’m secretly jealous of people like Carver, a simple redneck who can handle himself in any situation. He’s not that nuanced and he’s the absolute opposite of an intellectual. But it’s his ability to blend into the wild that makes the main character wonder if he’s just crazy… Carver even seems to be an extension of the terrible forest itself. But I see the character as less crazy and more visceral, even feral. A man in complete union with nature at its deadliest.

Shunnarah: Your first book, Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky, was a work of nonfiction published by History Press. Did you always know you wanted to write a novel at some point or was there something about writing Barn Dances and Jamborees that inspired you in that direction?

Wilkes: I never dreamed of really writing a novel. It was really all just a lark.

While on tour with my band in Norway, I cracked a laptop open for a light source while riding through a long tunnel in the mountains. I was homesick so I figured, “Hell… Why not start waxing poetic about Kentucky?” Those Arctic Circle surroundings might’ve inspired my slightly-Tolkienesque approach, though. It really looks like Middle Earth up there!

So I reckon I just started thinking about the lore of the South, as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon stuff that Tolkien studied. Thinking about how we have stories, too.

Shunnarah: In addition to writing the novel, you drew all the illustrations. And on top of that you’re an accomplished musician, both as a solo artist and as a member of multiple bands, most famously The Legendary Shack Shakers, and a filmmaker. How does your love of one inspire and influence the others?

Wilkes: All my pursuits are aimed at telling the same kind of story: epic southern mythology. So there’s always this overarching theme despite the varied media I dabble in. Each medium is just a different discipline that I have learned “good enough” to get the stories across to the public. The hope is that each and every creation will combine to form my own little universe, one that people will enjoy visiting from time to time.

Shunnarah: What’s next for you? I’m interested in any creative projects you’re working on, though I’m especially curious to know if there are more books in the works.

Wilkes: There’s a solo record in the works with some of the Squirrel Nut Zippers guesting. There will be another mural project or two––I just did a large painting for the historic Coke Plant in Paducah. And I’m always writing tunes for The Legendary Shack Shakers. New album comes out in April!

Despite the workload, I’m still vaguely entertaining Carver’s next move, way in the back of my brain. Wonder what he’ll do next …

__

Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, Deep South Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

La Puta: a review of Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover by Mila Jaroniec

IMG_3047
Split Lip Press, 142 pages, $16

BY SAM FARAHMAND

vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

 

I came to Mexico to try to forget all about someone, which I now know I might’ve done the same on the other side of the border with the other half of a bottle of tequila, seeing the half I have left here and knowing all I might’ve done different there is say some of the same words but worse for lack of a bitterer word in a language I can pronounce all of the words right, but here the language means much more to me signifying nothing other than to show how I still feel about la puta.

It is my first time outside of America and my third day in Mexico after departing two days be­fore the inauguration from Los Angeles International Airport three quarters after one in Pacific Standard Time, arriving, after several hours hungover in Mexico City, a quarter before eleven in Central Standard Time in Mérida, Mérida being the capital city of the Mexican state of Yucatán in the northwest of the Yucatán peninsula several hours west of the beaches in Quintana Roo I am sure someday soon and maybe even before this trip is over where I’ll end up in Cancún, though for the time being I can’t cunt, but space being the best visualization for time we have for now, I needed to have some distance between the past and me.

Maybe I might’ve felt better if I had bought a bigger bottle, but I don’t like to drink tequila be­cause tequila is the sort of drink for people who don’t drink to drink, though I was told the tequila in the country is supposed to be cleaner than the water here, so if I don’t drink I might die. I don’t remember if it was an American or an alcoholic who told me that, one of the ones on their way to a beach where I am sure the sea there is the cliché they say it is with the sand and the sun the sort of sand and sun that would make one want to take a shot then shoot one of the locals, but they’re all tourists there.

Not that I’m not. I am rereading this review I rewrote from a second floor room in a hostel just south of the square in the center of Mérida, looking down at the couple of pages I had folded into quarters for being in my back pocket and blue around the edges from being in my back pocket as I sweated the blue from my jeans into the pages while staying up until the sun with strangers rub­bing the backs of their jeans on the front of my jeans. From here I hear the world has ended again and this time in America, looking up from the pages to see there is a bed and there is a bottle and there is a balcony I can stand on and see the center of the city and the cathedral and it is all alive, around it all of the carriages and cars driving in circles around the square full of the birds and the bums and it looks like one of those square parks in an America when an artist could afford to live and when love was just as clichéd as the time. Love is always as clichéd as time, but hindsight is me remembering how good her ass looks in black jeans.

 

When the conquistadors came they burned all the books but one, someone says to me somewhere where I’m not at the time because I am remembering I have ten nonconsecutive days of sobriety, not counting today, this new year. I know it doesn’t mean as much when I can’t cash in my chips because I am not on a roll, but it’s sort of the same as saying this is the forty-fifth when knowing there have only been forty-four with one who held two nonconsecutive terms, though for all our obsessiveness with counting the days and recounting, consecutive or nonconsecutive, there is no such thing as death in America.

Maybe death is why I am here, not because love is a kind of hatred, but because love is death in some syllogistic sense that every x is y is therefore the same as x is y is y. God is dead is dead and maybe I’m here because it seems like all our associations of south with down and down with death would make them much closer to death here, but then I’m disappointed that so far the only skulls I have seen have been covered in skin while the most they have shown of themselves is in their smiles.

It has been some time since I’ve smiled with my teeth, but then I think if i always came before e then the name of this city would translate to shit, which to me seems to be meaner than it seems meaningful, being here in Mérida rereading this review. I’m supposed to be here recording sound for the film my friend Santa Ana, a friend I’ve had for half of my life, is filming, maybe even act­ing in the film as a revolutionary but without any lines so I won’t have to remember anything, but we haven’t started shooting. I’m happy to not have to remember anything and I go back inside the room and I don’t know if it is the bottle or what is inside the bottle that is colored gold to make it look like urine, but I’ll still try to get rid of the same dream I’ve had for some time where I see la puta on the beach.

Santa Ana says we might pay a prostitute to play a prostitute in the film because it’ll be easier than finding someone else, so now I’m somewhere between Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo and maybe I am a revolutionary in some revolution I don’t remember in some dream, though I wonder if my likeness will be pressed into cloth. I didn’t bring my blue sweatshirt that reads El Camino Real in blue on a white background and Conquistadors in gold over a print of a conquistador on the front because it might’ve made me look like another tourist as far south in North America as he can af­ford to be in a Mexico standing in for a South America because Santa Ana couldn’t afford to take us down to the Amazon.

 

The tequila is down now to half a half of a bottle, which still feels more optimistic to me than the odds on a quarter, but soon I will be taking a bus down to a small town an hour outside of Mérida and only several hours away from where the world ended, on the way there the signs for Chichén Itzá and its pyramids and the signs for the crater at Chicxulub as if there might be one coming up for Xibalba, but after enough time, all any civilization leaves behind is its afterlife.

I don’t need to see the ruins or the crater to know they’re there. I know the crater is our creator as much as I know when the agave stopped being subsidized everyone in the towns started living off of showing the tourists the sinkholes fractured off from the crater buried under Chicxulub, the sinkholes they all call the sweetwater. The tourists swim in them, but I’ve been spending my time in a different sort of hole to water in because it’s a dollar for a score of pesos and a little less than forty for a forty with the cost of living here not much more than the cost of dying. All the houses here made of concrete and a lot of them painted on with signs for their savior and some verses he said, but I’d rather die than have someone else die for my sins. It’s my sins that give me the surest sense of who I am.

If not death, it’s God they’re closer to here. Maybe only because the sun is that much closer to the surface here, seeing the dogs straying on and off the sides of the roads and all of them coated in their diseases and sometimes so asleep in the sun I can’t tell if they’re dead. I don’t know what they did to deserve what they don’t, but at least they still have all their genitalia. Forgetfulness is forgiveness enough for me, but I’m afraid I’m losing some of my life here because they burn and they breathe in all of their trash during the day, though I have nothing of hers to burn but what is left in my head when I see a dog that looks like la puta lying down under a pair of white swing­ing saloon doors that makes everyone look like they have angel’s wings when they leave into the sunlight after they step over the dog still staring at me while I drink in this cantina several hours to the right of the middle of nowhere.

Every end, even a good end, is still an end. I see a fetus of a dog on the side of the road on the way back from the cantina and I hear a cock crow three times before the sun is up and soon I will be heading back to still another America to cross this country with some poet and I will likely be reading this review at one of these readings, if not another one of the essays I wrote that have this same short story in the middle, but here it is for the fourth time:

 

President’s Day

 

Happy hour ends in half an hour.

I’ll see you in half a half an hour then, I say but hold the tall can of Mexican beer to my mouth while I wait for her to come back and set down a red American Indian figurine on the bar for the buyback. It’s a good bar during happy hour because they give you two beers for one beer and it’s a good bar because the beers are cheap even when it isn’t happy hour.

The bartender is pregnant in a white dress and she looks like someone’s daughter who’s going to have to be someone’s mother. It must have been over half a year ago the last time I was in here and I saw her first, though if it weren’t for her being pregnant and all she would just look like any other bartender with rosy tattoos and long dark hair, but it must have been her tattoos or her hair or her being a bartender that got her pregnant. She tells me it’s, Five dollars.

Four Mexicans for five dollars.

What.

‘Cause it’s a tall can, so it has two cans worth in each can, then there’s another two on the way. I don’t know. I’m sorry, I just like this happy hour here.

If you like it so much, we have a midnight happy hour too.

When does that start, I ask but she just stares at me. I wonder if I want to wait here for another happy hour, even if The Library bar is the only good bar on the Lower East Side, though it’s nei­ther Lower nor Easter of me, but no one really lives in Manhattan. I mean, when does it end.

Are you not waiting for someone.

I don’t know.

What’s her name.

What’s your name.

Do you not know her name.

Do you wanna know my name.

You ask a lot of questions for someone who doesn’t know anything.

I laugh and the bar is quiet and I think I’ll get drunk enough to try to get her to drink with me, so I ask her what she thinks of my name.

I don’t know what your name is. It’s not like it’s embroidered on your shirt.

I don’t work in the sort of place where my name is embroidered on my shirt.

No one works anymore. At least, not today.

No one drinks today.

She says it like she’s going to turn to point at some sign, But whether they drink or not no one works for free.

Five dollars for four Mexicans, right. I hand her a ten dollar bill and say, Hamilton.

Hamilton. Your parents named you Hamilton. That’s too bad.

I laugh and tell her, No. I just find that I’m much less likely to spend all my money on alcohol if I call all the presidents by their names.

She tugs at the ends of the bill and asks me, Why don’t you call him Alexander.

I don’t wanna get too attached. I’m still an alcoholic.

She walks away with the Hamilton and goes to and opens the register then counts the change and closes it slowly with her hip and walks back to me and hands me the change and says, Here you go Hamilton.

These aren’t Hamiltons.

I’m calling you Hamilton.

Oh. So you’re not gonna ask me my name. You’re just gonna call me Hamilton then.

Well, your parents never did.

I raise the can to her and say, I still resent them for that.

Plus I don’t want to get too attached. I still have to serve alcoholics.

She smiles at me and I can see why she’s pregnant. I smile back as she turns to go to the other end of the bar and I can see why she’s a bartender. I drink as fast as I Mexican and keep drinking and I finish my drink so she has to come back and get me another drink. I leave a Washington on the counter with the Indian figurine and I look for her to come back, but she’s with someone else, so I just have to pick up and finger the figurine. I don’t know why his headdress is so large on his head or why they made him red.

They laugh at the other end of the bar and I look up for her to see me, which she does, but she sees me like she sees through me and she still takes her time coming back to my end.

I smile when she’s close and set the figurine down on the counter again.

You know, Ham, it hasn’t been half a half an hour yet.

You know Hamilton wasn’t a president either.

Are you telling me you’re not the president of these United States of America.

Well the president doesn’t have his name embroidered on his shirt.

He doesn’t work today either.

When does he.

I don’t know. He never comes in for happy hour. I guess I don’t know him as well as you do.

I guess I don’t know you as well as you do.

Another Mexican. She takes the figurine and comes back with another beer. Hamilton.

I guess I don’t know me as well as you do.

No one ever does.

I like talking to you. I know I don’t have a horse in this race. I can just talk to you.

Are you saying I have a horse of a face.

No, I mean it’s not like I have to ask you when you get off.

Are you not going to get me off.

Are you having fun with me.

You’re just trying to get me to say you’re fun.

Am I.

You really don’t know anything do you.

I don’t know much, but I do know I don’t not know anything.

Sure you don’t.

Can I have a lime for this one.

Sure. She picks a lime out of the limes and drops it on the mouth of the can. Will that be all.

I don’t know, I say forcing the lime into the can. Alexandra’s a good name, you know.

And Alexander’s a great one. But it’s not mine, so what’s that got to do with anything.

Your current predictament.

My current predictament is that it’s not mine.

It isn’t.

Well, it is. But I’m not keeping it.

That’s too bad.

Why’s that.

You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.

Everyone has their whole lives ahead of them. Well, not everyone. Not even you, Alexander.

Why not, Alexandra.

She smiles and she says, Happy hour ends in half a half an hour.

 

Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover

 

I am reading a copy of Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover while on my half a half an hour break in a break room in back of a bookstore in a strip mall that could be anywhere in Los Angeles but any­where else and where there isn’t enough time for me to go anywhere else to do anything else, but then again, all the sections in this book are short enough for me to read some of them whenever I have a break to read the only copy of this book to ever be in this bookstore.

It is the day after New Year’s Eve and might as well still be the night before when I smoked a Romeo y dos Julietas worth of cigar that don’t seem to be getting along with everything else still in my stomach while I am slurring through returning all the returns the customers have to return. The bookstore is one of those brick-and-mortar ones customers always become all fire-and-brim­stone about before they’re angry with me at the price of the bestsellers they decide to order online after leaving all their books at the register for me to reshelve. Dust doesn’t collect in alphabetical order, so I’m still not sure where all of the books should be reshelved, but the bookstore is doing well enough during the holidays for one of the assistant managers to tell me we might be able to be paid this year after all, though I am afraid I’m not selling enough to stay on after my seasonal employment and I am afraid I’m not smiling enough at every customer’s attempt to confront their death anxiety through capitalism.

I’m no stranger to that since I sold my soul to be the writer I am, but I still don’t know how to sell out, which I would if I could, so for a time being I have leased the pain in my spine from my back to my neck for ten dollars an hour in a hell that isn’t waiting in a line but waiting on a line. The hell in a well, you’re doing well, you’re not doing good. I am not doing well, but I am doing good enough good to customers as plastic as the plastic with which they pay, which must be why they become so angry with me when I have to charge them a dime for a paper bag, but they think they can smile through anything if their teeth are whitened enough. I tell them a tote bag we have for two dollars has on it the original cover art of This Side of Paradise. Most of them don’t know how to read, but their fingers are good for turning pages.

One of them asked me if I could bring her dog back from the dead, which made me smile that she could have asked for me to bring back anyone from the dead but only asked me to bring back her dog. She bought a book and I told her about our fourteen day return policy with a receipt for a full refund before I go to piss because I drink a lot of water to have to piss a lot to have to walk across the bookstore to the restroom to piss to have to wash my hands hard and try harder to stare at myself, though there isn’t a sign here that says employees must wash sins of the customer, but I know why I’m here as much as I know ignorance isn’t innocence.

Another one buying a copy of the Bible asked me if I believe in the word as he patted down a Bible he still hadn’t bought. I told him I believe in words, but he had nothing to say other than to pay for his copy of the Bible because all we have in common is consumerism is our communion. We even have our own pyramids to it here, though we seem to forget the point of the pyramid is to be buried under the pyramid, but on my last day before I leave for Mexico I realize I’ll have to make some means of getting money into my hands and holding onto it longer than turning it into change and handing it right back. I look at the change and remember there might even be a black face where there were only white skulls with powdered wigs on them before, but still it all looks green to me. We bend the truth over until it’s lying down like this line.

There is a section too long for me to read in the few minutes I have left, so I set the book back in my locker in the break room and sit down while I hold something else in my hand to stare at it so it doesn’t look strange that I’m sitting here and staring at nothing. I try to remember what I had read because I always thought that if you underline all the lines you like, you should cross out all the ones you don’t, so I only dogeared the pages I will come back to for the review, but all I think of as I try not to think is la puta.

 

Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover Part Two

 

Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover is a book about one of those unnamed narrators trying to get over a lost love à la La Maga from the book Hopscotch by the Latin American author of whom I don’t remember the name. The title Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover feels like it should have a hyphen put in there somewhere and a handful of consonants taken out, but then I remember the author of Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover is from the other half of the world where most of their words are almost all consonants and where consonants aren’t considered to be an autoerotic asphyxiation of language as much as a means to get the most out of their vowels when they say something.

I have always thought much more of the hyphen that comes before American than where the ______-American comes from because punctuation is like a simile, though the truth is you’re not an American if you weren’t born in America, but you’re even less of one if your father and moth­er were. Like love, the only thing we ever share is the past, but history is a mass hysteria. Maybe my memory is worse than I remembered because I remember there was more Polish than there is here, but here is all of the Polish in Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover with the page numbers for the pages on which the Polish is:

 

           Musimy jakos zyc, czy istniejemy czy nie

  1. 16

            dinozaura, prosze

  1. 21

            Przygody Dobrego Wojaka Szwejka.

  1. 85

            Wszystko Twoje

  1. 100

           Trzeba sobie jakos radzic, powiedzial baca, zawiazujac buta dzdzownica

  1. 115

            barszcz

  1. 118

            uszka

  1. 118

            pierogi

  1. 118

            Trzymaj sie, siostra

  1. 124

            Nareszcie

  1. 124

 

Writing a review is like the difference between underlining a line and writing, seeing as a review is only written for the writer and the only reason I’m writing this review is because I will know at least one person will, whether or not they underline lines, read this, but then again, there are a lot of lines about an American Dream in Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover worth underlining and there are a lot of addresses to you as a reader and in some of the shorter italicized sections to you as an unnamed character, but as you reads through the book the same as I travels through time, Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover being as deictic as it is, whatever that is, you realize like in life how your you‘s start to get used and your I‘s get used to it as they do the meaninglessness of me.

But we make sense of things through things though things because we are all merely stand-ins for someone else, if not stand-ins for something that came before all this and if not for something to come after, friend being the worst f word there is as far as any mot just concerns me, but it’s all the same. Something, as in, anything, is a lot closer to everything than it is nothing.

I should rewrite this review after I realize all of the art of today is the art of the art of, though for the time being the most common quality of writing that makes me less likely to read it is if it is published. It makes me think this all might’ve ended up instead of down if I were some sort of successful author, as if selling a bestseller would make a bookstar of me, but like being loved for who we’re with, don’t we all want to be loved for who we’re not. I was always afraid the only Na­tional Endowment for the Arts I’d ever have my hands on is my cock.

I reread this review and I realize I’d forgot how much of ourselves we have to forget when we try to forget someone else, but in my head all I hear is the same old same All hail, Might’ve, thou shalt be king hereafter. I ask the author to read this review before I send it out to be rejected, but then the author tells me she thinks it reads like la puta is referring to her, which makes me smile that she might’ve thought this review is about her, though maybe even I don’t know who la puta is, as much as I now know I didn’t, but no one, maybe not even la puta, knows who la puta is but la puta.

Still I might be able to get something good together to review Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover, something, as in:

 

The title Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover turns in itself like love into a lover as it turns the nouns into adjectives from Plastic to Vodka to Bottle to Sleepover and we see all life is is this effort to try to turn nouns into adjectives. Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover is all about deixis and in more than one sense, but in the story and the sound of its title, it is the same as This Side of Paradise and, like the title This Side of Paradise itself, it is the same in a structural sense of sound reflecting story to show how it signifies This Side of Paradise.

 

I have never had much of a Mary to hail, but I’ll try because I’m afraid only one person will read this as much as I’m sure la puta will read this because you are la puta and I am la puta and all of this is puta y pues puta y puta y pues puta. Our puta who art in puta, puta be thy name thy king­dom puta thy will be puta in puta as it is in puta. Give us this puta our daily puta and puta us our puta as we puta our putas and puta us not into puta but deliver us from puta; pues puta. Hail pu­ta madre full of puta, puta is with thee.

The words are, whether we write them or not, all there because all we are is our word and our words for our word, though looking back now on all of my looking forward, all I know is I don’t even know myself, but that isn’t all I don’t know.

All I know is I don’t know.

 

Sam Farahmand is an Iranian-American writer from Los Angeles. He is an editor at drDOCTOR. He has an MFA from The New School and his writing has appeared in Hobart and drDOCTOR Vol. 1.

[GUEST FEATURE] Writing While Brown

BY JONATHAN MARCANTONI

It was in the 90s when I began writing, first on a cheap computer program my dad bought me that mixed cut out animation with text. At that time, living in the Deep South, I had no knowledge of academic studies on ethnic literature or Nuyorican politics. We were Puerto Ricans and very simply so. Racism was apparent, and came from both the Mexicans who looked down on Puerto Ricans for no other reason than tribalism, and whites who were just ignorant and didn’t know what to do with a kid who was not light enough to be white, not tan enough to be immediately labelled a Mexican, and not dark enough to be black. So, I fell in with the black kids, and black art, and I was emboldened by the bravery of black artists to not only let their voice be heard but to be proud of their skin, their culture, and their unity as a people. The self-hatred and victimization of the Latino community was not something I was aware of as a teenager. I didn’t know I shouldn’t be proud of being Puerto Rican the same way James Brown was proud to be black. Becoming a writer broke down that ignorance, most often in conversations with the gatekeepers and mentors I relied on.

At age 15, applying for a writing program at a state arts academy:

Jon, you have such a great voice as a writer, why do you focus on such negative subjects?

How is it negative? It is real life.

Well, it’s just that…you’re just a teenager, why do you want to write about social problems?

Would you say that to Steinbeck?

Jon, there is no reason to compare yourself to famous people, that really gets you nowhere.

But why can famous authors write about social problems and I can’t?

(pause)

I think…this might just be too dark for an application to a state school. Most young people write science fiction or fantasy, maybe romance, but a union strike? They might not be the best audience for a political piece.

The guidelines don’t say what I can write about, just the length and that we can’t use profanity.

Right…well, I can’t stop you from submitting this. But in the future, I think you really ought to consider your audience.

At age 20, giving a writer friend who had been published a story of mine for feedback:

Jon, this is a really great story, but have you thought about setting it in the US? Most people in publishing don’t know much about Puerto Ricans if they don’t live in New York. And do they have to be Puerto Rican?

I am Puerto Rican, why would I not have my characters be as well?

I get that, I get that, but do they have to be Latino? It’s such a universal story—

So, the only humans capable of representing everyone are Americans, or let’s be honest, white Americans?

That…Jon, don’t get defensive, I’m just talking about your audience. You wrote this in English, and the people who would be reading this are not likely to be Latino.

I’m not going to be someone I’m not.

And I’m not asking you to be, I’m just saying you gotta play the game sometimes. Get published by following the rules and then you can experiment and have your stories be about whatever you want them to be about.

At age 22, talking to my aunt about the book I had just written:

Jon, you are such a good writer, and you have so much passion for our culture, I love it, really, but do you have to write about such dark things? Isn’t the world sad enough as it is, why can’t you write stories that are more positive about our people?

Well, tia, I want to raise awareness of issues that affect us and that need to be talked about.

I can understand that, but we have so much negativity about our people, why add to it?

So, I should ignore what goes on in our communities so we can feel better about ourselves?

That’s not what I’m saying—look, we have it really good compared to other people, and I think your writing would go a lot farther if you weren’t so critical of the United States too. I mean, you should be more grateful for what this country has done for you and our family.

At age 27, talking to a black screenwriter about my second book, which I wanted to adapt:

Jon, this is a great story, but have you ever heard of race-neutral storytelling? When producers look at a script, they base its marketability on how wide of an audience they can attract, and the more racially specific a story is, the less people will be interested. So instead of having Puerto Rican characters in Puerto Rico, why not move this story to Los Angeles and make the characters’ racial identity ambiguous, and maybe have a couple smaller characters be Mexican, it is LA so you can get away with that, but overall make it more universal, which is to say, neutral. And cut out the political commentary, just focus on the crime stuff and maybe find a place to add a romantic subplot, since that really appeals to people in the suburbs.

At age 27, receiving a review from a white blogger for the same book:

Jon, I gave this book a chance but couldn’t make it past the third page. Have you ever taken a writing class? Have you ever read a book? Chapter headings are centered three lines down a page as “Chapter 1, 2, 3” etc. and not any other way. You don’t go back and forth between narrative and thought without putting thoughts in italics and dialogue uses quotes, not em-dashes. Finally, mixing Spanish and English and not translating the Spanish really alienates readers and limits your audience. You do want people to read this, right?

At age 30, receiving a rejection letter from a major publisher for my third book:

This is a fascinating and vivid book that is intelligently written, however, we have a hard time seeing how it would be marketable for a wide audience since it lacks a relatable character.

It is at this point that the culture began to talk about micro-aggressions outside of the university. Concepts of intersectionality and modes of oppression became commonplace on talk and news shows, but for most of my life I had seen these things play out and understood, even at age 15, that what people didn’t “get” was why I would waste my time writing about brown and black people struggling for dignity and respect in their careers, their personal lives, from their government, their friends, and their family. Had they been white characters, probably no one would have batted an eye. Had the stories set in Puerto Rico or in Puerto Rican communities instead have been Irish or Italian or had the protagonist been a white observer who could give the white reader an “in”, my work probably could have received interest from a larger press, maybe even a Big 5 one, had I played the game of appealing to white sensibilities and assuaging white guilt by portraying my homeland as worse than even the gravest crime the U.S. had ever committed to us and that any good that came to us came from the U.S. Had I remembered to praise the American Dream and have my Latino characters yearn for nothing more than to be another thread in the great nation’s fabric. Had I been a house spic, they would have let me in. Stay in your lane. That is the between the lines refrain I decipher from this small sampling of conversations about my work. Stay in your lane.

Instead, I chose universality. My first book looks at people from all walks of life, educated and not, rich and poor, addicted and straight-laced, selfish and selfless, human beings who happen to be Latinos. My second was set in my homeland and dealt with politic corruption and human trafficking, but more pointedly, it was about the exploitation of the poor for the sins of the wealthy, showing how both Americans and those Puerto Ricans who support them, most often light skinned as well, get away with murder while the poor and black Puerto Ricans suffer for far lesser crimes. My third book was about club kids and mental illness and the desire to return to Puerto Rico to fully achieve our dreams. A subversion of the American Dream that has oppressed our people for ages. If we are to move forward as artists we have to tell stories that are universal, even while being specific to a particular experience and point of view. We have to think of methods of expression that are not so easily explained by ethnicity or country of origin. But to do so we need an outlet for such ideas and stories to flourish. If I was going to be a gatekeeper, then I had to supply the infrastructure, and so one more conversation had to occur.

At age 31, conversation between my ego (represented here as Suge Knight), and my id (represented here as Dr. Dre):

Suge: The fuck do you want?

Dre: I’m here to tell you I’m cutting my losses and setting out to start my own company.

Suge: And what are you expecting from me?

Dre: That you let me go. That your bullshit insecurities and shady past don’t interfere with my plans.

Suge: Boricua, why should I do that?

Dre: Because what I’m about to do will make you look good as well. You can even take credit for all you taught me these last few years. You see, I’m gonna provide a space, a lounge, for people of all races and backgrounds to contribute their work and get feedback and encouragement. A space where mentorship can be fostered and developed. And this space will be accompanied by a book publisher for Latinos and Caribbeans to tell stories outside the white gaze, outside the stereotyped expectations placed on us, stories of humanity that transcend genre and expectation. We will be that space for writers of color to truly be themselves.

Suge: How you gonna make money off some dumb ass shit like that?

Dre: It’s not about money, it’s about expression, and because we are filling a need, serving an underdeveloped market, we will attract attention, instead of dipping into the same waters as other new presses.

Suge (scoffing, rolling his eyes): Alright, you want to jump off a deep end and say fuck you to the white man I’m not gonna stop you, but I still think it’s stupid. So, whatchu gonna call that bullshit?

(Dramatic pause)

Dre: La Casita Grande Press.

(Cut to black)

 

 

Jonathan Marcantoni is a Boricua author of four books, and the forthcoming Tristiana. He is co-founder, with his wife Suset, of La Casita Grande Press.

[REVIEW] Communion by TJ Beitelman

communion

Black Lawrence Press, 2016

 

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN DUCKWORTH

“Most things don’t take root, and that is as it was intended.”

The above quote, a cryptic line from the story “Sister Blanche” in TJ Beitelman’s Communion, captures much of the magic and tragedy suffusing the collection’s stories—stories of marriages halfway ended, affairs partway consummated, vows only partially kept, and conversations only begun but never finished.

The full title of Beitelman’s new book is Communion: Stories, but that doesn’t quite describe the animal that is this book. While in places a reader may well be lulled into thinking they’re leafing through an ordinary short story collection, such as in “Antony and Cleopatra,” or “Joy,” other sections will lead to questions of genre. The early short pieces of the collection (“Artic Circle,” “Masks”) could be read both as prose poetry as well as flash fiction, testament to Beitelman’s lyrical dexterity as well as his strength at setting a scene and selling a mood. In a further departure, the book’s longest piece, “Notes on an Intercessory Prayer,” is less a story and more a lyric essay with brief fictional incisions into what is by-and-large a tribute to the late Benazir Bhutto. The last flush of stories (“Hope, Faith, and Love,” “Communion”) toward the end of the book can stand as individual pieces as well as chapters to a larger surrealist work that tells the myth of a working-class Messiah and the family he leaves behind without saving.

While most of the stories in Communion are set in Southern locales, their characters traditional (after a fashion) Southerners of working-class extraction, there are some notable exceptions. One of my favorites, “Yoi, Hajime” centers on a Japanese chicken-sexer reflecting on his time working in Atlanta, Georgia alongside a young black woman who he longs for but never gets around to courting. The model guiding most of Beitelman’s stories is less the lopsided pyramid taught in creative writing workshops around the country and more the asymptote: the curving line that draws closer and closer to the line that would be its mate without ever touching. The endings are often open-ended: pots left simmering on the stove. A wonderful example of this is the excellent flash piece “Blackface,” which leaves the reader with a powerful and pervading sense of mystification mixed with enlightenment as we see a drunken teenager break into a neighbor’s house only to come face to face with his own mother—naked and in blackface. The motivations are irrelevant, as are the consequences to the characters in the aftermath—all that matters is the powerful moment of recognition between the mother and son before the son flees the house.

TJ Beitelman’s Communion is not a conventional short story collection, nor is it the sort of collection that one could use as an easy, marketable model for putting together a first book. It is, however, memorable and equal-parts troubling, affecting, and inspiring.