New & Recommended This Spring
SWIMMING IN SKY
In his debut novel Swimming in Sky, Inman Majors endows his narrator with extraordinary storytelling powers. As the name suggests, Jason Sayer knows how to testify, and he guides us through the landscape of an emerging "new Knoxville" with searing wit and a devastating insight that carries the hope and understanding of true compassion.
Say, as he's known by certain friends, is unsure what to do next. He's a Vandy grad, but only has a liberal arts degree to show for it. He has been on a trip to Australia, presumably to get his head straight and figure out what he wants to do, but the journey has clearly failed to shed any light in that respect. So as the novel begins, Sayer has informally moved in with his mother and her boyfriend, to sleep on a couch in their den.
Further complicating this twenty-five year-old's identity quest is a recent bad acid trip that seems to have brought about the material realization of Sayer's own peculiar stock of nightmares. Having been reared with a family legacy of UT football heroism, he now feels the ubiquitous presence of a shadow following him around. Growing increasingly paranoid and suspicious in the company of the friends he grew up with, he's troubled by the curiously insinuating nature of comments that seem to be directed at him, particularly a remark about Judas, the infamous traitor from the Gospels. Paging through the Bible for spiritual guidance one moment, the next Sayer treads in fear of the very sky itself, which in one memorable scene is transformed into the kind of menace previously seen only in the world of Hitchcock.
To top it off, this childhood jock now has a bum knee and no health insurance. The knee serves as the physical manifestation of what separates Sayer from other "slacker" protagonists. Unlike the paralysis we often encounter in that character type, here we have a protagonist that for the most part has retained his abilities of locomotion. He's just a little gimpy, which signals how hard he must work to cross the road his spiritual journey requires.
Through Sayer's thoroughly engaging voice, Majors leads us on an odyssey that provides a complex and stratified view of suburbia. It is not simply rendered as generic and bland, as it has been in other books, in less capable hands. Swimming in Sky sharply delineates one type of subdivision from another, in a refreshing turn of attention to accuracy. Overall the sense of place Majors achieves is staggering, as he takes us to jock watering holes, alternative clubs and west Knoxville suburbia, just to name a few memorable locations. -Geoffrey B. Trumbo
THE BODY ARTIST
After taking on a good part of a century through a vast segment of a culture with his last novel, anyone looking at how slim this volume is will possibly be thinking, "leftover fragment." After starting in a bit, they might think, "Oh, what a nice change! This towering intellect has delivered a charming little puzzle-box." The latter opinion isn't completely wrong. But capturing a broad phrase that encompasses an easy (and therefore dismissing) view of the work would go straight to the heart of some of what DeLillo's got to say this time around.
A man and a woman have breakfast with their little phrases, gestures, and internal tentative self-examination of each one described with an examining eye that's not quite critical. Soon enough the narrative changes over to the man's obituary. He was a film director; she is a performance artist. But whatever their mastery of verisimilitude was or is, it's about to be trumped by the appearance of a young man. This apparent squatter blurts out mimicry of past conversations that the couple had, and the widow becomes obsessed with how these savant gifts fall out of time and the demands of the world. The dialogue of the surviving spouse and this ghostly cypher shadows her journey through grief.
"The words ran on, sensuous and empty, and she wanted him to laugh with her, to follow her out of herself. This is the point, yes, this is the stir of true amazement."
The author sometimes offers very generous hints to how he'd like readers to interpret the most opaque of the clipped exchanges and curious small actions. In the end, it's the very gentle insisting quality of these mantra-like asides that shows that DeLillo hasn't revealed as much about the nature of identity as he would've liked. -T.E. Lyons
Julianna Baggott's debut novel, Girl Talk, is a thematic cross between Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Bridget Jones's Diary. The protagonist of Girl Talk, Lissy, is a woman in her early thirties trying to understand who she is and where she stands in relation to the rest of her life. In order to do so, she sifts through the details of her mother's past in an effort to map her own psyche.
Baggott manages the intensity of a mystery without losing the depth of a literary novel. She writes with an uncontrived style that sparkles with frequent gems of truth. One never senses that Baggott is self-consciously trying to be profound, but profundity jumps off the pages all the same.
Lissy recalls the summer her father abandoned her and her mother, an event that propelled her mother to tell Lissy the details of her own past: her lost first love, her emotional abandonment by her own parents, and the fallout that ensued. Baggott's characterization of Lissy incisively captures the insecure meanderings of children who came of age in the 80's and suddenly find themselves in adulthood, not really certain of how they got there, or indeed, if they've truly arrived. Remembering one particularly poignant night of "girl talk" with her mother, Lissy realizes that in many ways, an adult is just an older version of one's younger self. "For the first time, I thought of my mother as a girl like me, as still being that girl, only older, that I would age but be the same person that I was right then lying next to my drunk mother."
Lissy is of a generation of people schooled in murky understandings of Freud with touches of Jung, unable to help their habits of analyzing everything from advertisements to buildings as collections of clumsily-costumed genitalia ("My sophomore year of high school, a Catholic high school even, I was analyzing ads in a sociology class for genitalia among melting ice cubes. By college, I was trained to actually read sex in the swirled cigarette smoke of a menthol."), a generation of people trying desperately not to analyze themselves too much, but, having seen too much, unable to help themselves. As a result, Lissy develops into a woman who is caught: she wants more than anything to live her life authentically, but she is deeply afraid to make any type of commitment, to admit to herself that she has any strong beliefs, because any belief, after all, consigns one to some sort of commitment. -Trina Janiec Jones
THE BLOOD RUNS LIKE A RIVER THROUGH MY DREAMS
Even though The Blood Runs Like a River through My Dreams is presented as a memoir, the essays present a disjointed, confused world. They appear to stick to a loose chronological order, but the themes hold the book together. Nasdijj writes about the chaos in his life, the insanity that has become normal for him. Reading the essays, one wonders if he ever had a calm moment in his life. The lack of stability this man has suffered would cause any normal person to give up hope, but Nasdijj seems to draw energy and fire from all that he has lived through. The essays present a will to write, a will to do right by his son, and a will to make the plight of modern Indians something real - no more stereotypes.
Nasdijj comments several times on how difficult it is for him to read and write because of his fetal alcohol syndrome, causing a debilitating learning disability. But his desire to write is almost self-destructive. In fact, at one point in the book, he becomes homeless, swearing that he will make a living from his writing, consequences be damned.
He was beaten as a child and his anger about this is apparent, but the essays about his relationship with his own son add a touching triumph to this man's life. His son, Tommy Nothing Fancy, was born with fetal alcohol syndrome as well, and Nasdijj uses his own experiences with FAS to help his son. He spoils him, taking him fishing and exhibiting strong patience with his anger and confusion. Nasdijj holds tightly to the memories of his son, and one realizes that they saved each other.
The Blood Runs is a memoir unlike any other, written amid chaos, as if words are all the author has. One gets the feeling that he has wrung his hands for something real until he bled. -Steven Tweddell
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers wrote a book about his life. He lost both his parents in one month and was forced to raise his kid brother at age 23, tried to create an army of socially-motivated youths bent on over-turning the stagnant culture via Might Magazine, nearly got signed on as a cast member of MTV's The Real World (really), and still tried to get laid. Eggers wrote it all down, tweaked his non-fiction enough to have it dubbed fiction, and proceeds to unleash upon the world a brilliant, self-examining novels published.
AHWOSG is about Eggers, about itself, about Eggers bizarre predicament and his need to heal, ignore and lash out; the paralysis of parenthood, coupled with the exuberance of the idealistic, socially-motivated youth. All gnaw at him. Eggers perfectly captures the guilt of imagination, and yet his imagination, whipping through his mostly non-fictional tale like the bearer of catastrophe to the emperor, is powerful enough to see his own fevered imperfections, bear his fate without the least oversentimentality, and articulate it all with perfect precision and superior hilarity.
The book is staggering in virtually all its aspects; humor, insight both personal and profound, prose like a complicated puzzle that's already been solved; but most staggering in that the true tale is a fluid, manic joyride, that with the exception of a few fits or turbulence is a literal thrillride through 400+ pages. But the imperfections mirror the cracks and crevices of Eggers himself and his twisted, brilliant life. It does far more good than harm, and helps twist the reality/fiction, which Eggers wields like master fencer on lithium, in a thorough, remarkable self-journey into all selves. AHWOSG is most heartbreaking when you have to put it down.
This new paperback edition had not only been tinkered with for improvement by Eggers (taking out real phone numbers and such, originally included to show the reality of his "fiction") but also with the supplement (Mistakes We Knew We Were Making), a collection of notes, corrections, clarifications, apologies and addenda, as the front cover states, where Eggers dutifully points out each liberty he took in turning his life into AHWOSG. As the book itself shows, no one is a better deconstructionalist of Eggers than he himself, and his look back through the book is just as enlightening a view as the book itself. Funny, staggering, heartbreaking, and yes, genius too. -Rob Bricken
THE HEARTSONG OF CHARGING ELK
Based on the true story of a Native American stuck in France, The Heartsong of Charging Elk not only offers a look at turn-of-the-century Marseille, but through the main character we are able to imagine the alienation the American Indians felt at a time when they were being forced into a new way of life.
Charging Elk is a member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, a traveling circus-type performance of cowboys and Indians, sharpshooters, and lasso tricks. He catches the flu and is hospitalized in Marseille. The show continues to travel, and Charging Elk is left to fend for himself.
The story is his education. From the language and customs of the port town to the food, laws, and even style, Charging Elk must start at the beginning, making a life for himself in a place where he is largely ignored. Through James Welch's close attention to detail and careful depiction of a complete outsider, the picture of Charging Elk is rendered clearly. He is presented as an accepting learner and hard worker. He is able to build friendships with people not through his charm and social skills but through his trust of and wide-eyed wonder in his new world.
The most impressive aspect of the novel is the way Welch is absolutely convincing in portraying Charging Elk's confusion with French society and his loneliness even among friends. He must endure hell in order to live a normal life in a world that isn't his. At the same time his family and friends are in South Dakota braving the hell of being forced into reservation life. The Heartsong of Charging Elk is an impressive coming of age story, different because the hero is already a man. -Steven Tweddell