Second Skin Books
REVIEWED BY DALLAS ATHENT
We know Nathaniel Kressen after his debut novel, Concrete Fever was released in 2011. Concrete Fever followed two deranged kids around New York City, looking for fantasy in teenage angst.
Kressen’s new novel, Dahlia Cassandra was released in June, and is not what you might expect. The novel enters the lives of two teens who have been abandoned by their parents on a farm in Idaho where nothing will grow. A predatory author who does “method writing” comes to the town with this younger girlfriend and turns their lives around–and not in a good way. Once again, we have two youths as our main character, but Y.A. this book is not! It holds some of the qualities we know Kressen for: fast dialogue and an entertaining and dark vibe, for example.
Dahlia Cassandra relies on ambiguities and instead illustrates the soul of the characters through their simple actions. Many of the descriptions are cinematic. You can picture the moonlight the landscape. Here’s an example of such a passage:
“He heard panting nearby. There in the baking sun was an old dog, its tongue hanging out. He approached with caution. He scratched its head. Bugs had already found the poor thing and some jumped onto Junior’s arms. He cupped fresh water from the spigot but the dog refused to drink. It rested its head on the ground, felt the heat, picked it back up. Junio tried again with the water. He poured a handful over the dog’s head. The wet fur dried within minutes. He watched the animal struggle to breathe.”
The most wonderful thing about the way Kressen writes is that he’s direct–digestible to many while still remaining literary. He has the classic skill of Salinger in this way. In his simplicity he calls on us to question our motives–are we good or evil? And he does so while keeping us entertained. Dahlia Cassandra explores the wrongdoing of predatory men in creative power and how they use that power to abuse others since their work will always allow them to be loved by the public despite their horrific acts. It forces us to question the media we consume and its intentions–what do we do to fill the holes within ourselves and the evil we forgive in doing so? While it manages to do all this, it does have its flaws.
I did not find one of the lead characters, Stoli, who plays the girlfriend of the writer, well developed enough to praise. Stoli is a beautiful alcoholic who follows the older writer around making him her purpose and disregards his predatory nature for her own sake while turning into a predator herself. If you’re thinking you’ve heard of this character before, it’s because you have. I don’t need all of my characters to be deep, perfect or even politically correct, powerfully written women, but I do need them to be fresh and real, and Stoli offered no new or honest characteristics for me as a reader. Luckily, she is only one of three main characters so her presence is only a minor thorn in what is otherwise a stunning novel’s side.
The real delight in Dahlia Cassandra is Tike, who starts out as the most banal and uninteresting character, but evolves into a fierce, unexpected being. At the start you almost want to skim through her parts, which is almost characteristic of how she is meant to exist in real life; forgotten. We see Tike grow in the way only adolescents can–rapidly and free. She shows Kressen still has strength in depicting teenagers, both in their angst and will. Tike also demonstrates Kressen’s abilities to write strong female characters–a contradiction to the outcome of Stoli. I’d go as far to say I’d like to see Tike resurface in her later years in a future novel of his.
Overall, I would recommend Dahlia Cassandra, especially to those who are annoyed with the necessary obscurity of modern literary fiction but also wish to reject the cheap thrills of a lot of commercial work. While it may not be a perfect novel, Dahlia Cassandra is a thrilling read full of thought provoking dialogue and beautiful images.
Dallas Athent is a writer and artist whose work has been profiled in Brooklyn Magazine, The L Magazine, Brooklyn Based and more. Her visual work has shows in Governor’s Island, Storefront Ten Eyck and to benefit the Rema Hort Mann Foundation. She lives in The Bronx with her hamster, Shelby.