Book Review Revue
AN ILLUSTRATED VIKING VOYAGE
by W. Hodding Carter
In the year 982, Erik the Red was banished from Iceland for three years on charges of manslaughter. Unable to return to Norway for the same reason, he headed west to explore a rocky but uninhabited land. When his banishment ended, he returned to Iceland to lead a group of colonists to this new place, which he called--in his best real-estate-speak--Greenland. When his son Leif Eriksson grew to sailing age in the year 1000, he followed his father's example (without the manslaughter) and went even further west, to a place that had been seen but never landed upon: North America.
Nearly 1,000 years later, American baby boomer W. Hodding Carter decided to build a Viking ship and retrace Eriksson's journey. The reason? He wanted to make a coffee-table book out of it. Well, Carter might not put it that way: "I wanted to look back and see how he and his fellow Vikings lived, what they felt, what they saw. I expected to find humorous situations, smelly characters, and a fair bit of danger," he writes. "It would be a lark."
Carter claims to have learned a lot about the Vikings through his voyage: namely, that they sailed for the sake of adventure, and not for wealth or fame or land. Bullshit. That better describes his trip, where he took his lack of sailing knowledge, combined it with a crew of unproven experience, and took to the sea in a kitschy re-creation. Yes, there is a danger and a foolhardiness to his idea, but there's also a whining self-righteousness to his writing that leads to unearned conclusions about Viking life. What saves this book from itself are the photos (credited to Russell Kaye) of icebergs and desolate landscapes--photos that say more than Carter's prose ever could. ANDY SPLETZER
HERO OF THE UNDERWORLD
by Jimmy Boyle
Glasgow-born author Jimmy Boyle spent 15 years in prison. Nearly two decades later, his anger has not abated. Boyle's fabulist stand-in Hero, the title character of this novel, has just been released after a decade wrongly incarcerated in a mental institution. The snakepit One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest atmosphere has left an indelible mark on him and a hunger for revenge. Hero takes a job at a slaughterhouse, where he is assigned to the offal room to sort through bloody tanks of hearts and lungs. It seems he is constantly marginalized and humiliated, even forced to drink blood by a sadistic coworker. Slowly, he begins to collect an assortment of friends with nicknames like Lockjaw, Bonecrusher, and Sligo. Hero and his outcasts embark on a series of misadventures. They steal a prize bull, commit grand theft, and plan an ill-fated heist. The book is full of graphic images and tawdry scenarios that bring to mind the flat-footed but surprisingly lyrical style of Pier Paolo Pasolini's A Violent Life.
Boyle has an unrelentingly harsh view, but it is tempered by a Burroughsian gallows humor. Even more surprising is his clear-eyed but sweet handling of Hero's romance with a prostitute, demonstrating the small salvations in the roughest of lives. Boyle takes the archetypes and stock characters of modern transgressive fiction and lets their humanity and redemption show through. NATE LIPPENS
by Kenneth Goldsmith
Anybody can write and everybody has a story to tell. As if in response to these twin pillars of the temple of autobiography, Kenneth Goldsmith spent a day tape-recording "every" move his body made. Commissioned by the Whitney Museum as a script for a live performance, the tape was later transcribed, and the results are available on the web (chbooks.com) and in this book of poetry, or, if you prefer, constricted prose.
Not only does Goldsmith try to describe each voluntary and involuntary bodily function in some detail--an impossible task--he vows to spend 13 hours in his apartment, doing and noticing the same activities over and over. Fortunately for the reader, Goldsmith cracks under the strain and goes out for booze. What begins as, "Eyelids open. Tongue runs across upper lip moving from left side of mouth to right following arc of lip," eventually slips into, "Thandclapsle. Extend out in sled.... Feet and egg platforms. I mean then a platformed body as does leave somewhat unsteadily." But just when it seems that drinking saves us from the quotidian routine, the final chapter appears to be the first chapter printed letter-for-letter, backward.
Although working in a tradition urged by Beckett and pushed by video artist Gary Hill, Goldsmith informs us (through a superb afterword by Marjorie Perloff) that another kind of necessity was the mother of this inversion: The end of his tape was so garbled he couldn't understand what he had said. Depending on your tolerance, this makes the ending unreadable or subject to multiple arcane decipherings.
Goldsmith's relentless drive to self- examination can apply to everyone. While personal commentary and the quest for meaning occupy (or preoccupy) the other end of the autobiographical spectrum, Goldsmith ranges into wavelengths generally invisible, but certainly universal. DOUG NUFER