Book Review Revue
by Tristan Egolf
Tristan Egolf's Lord of the Barnyard: Killing the Fatted Calf and Arming the Aware in the Cornbelt is a fantastical romp through the middles of America--geographic, social, economic, and cultural--with overtones of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Carolyn Chute's The Beans of Egypt, Maine, and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces humming around its shimmering cast of characters. Like Toole's posthumously published masterpiece of Southern absurdism, Egolf's novel suffered a wander through the publishing wilderness before making it to print. Rumor has it the book was rejected by 70 American publishers before Egolf, busking desperately around Europe, was befriended by a Parisienne who happened to be the daughter of French novelist Patrick Modiano. Modiano, recognizing its greatness, showed the book to his publisher, and the rest is bound for history. The American publishing world should weep with shame and envy.
"So what makes this novel so great?" you ask. This: An autodidact juvenile farmer named John Kaltenbrunner; his bearded and bloated mother; dozens of money-grubbing Methodist crones who prey on the sick and afflicted; a seemingly immortal sheep; steroid-pumped turkeys rampaging John's hometown of Baker, U.S.A.; a couple of hydroelectric dam disasters, one of which floods half a county; incompetent law enforcement; greased pigs; woolly mammoth skeletons; inbred Appalachian river people; convicted felons; explosions; arson; city-wide, social class-straddling riots unlike anything middle America has seen; and perhaps most importantly, millions upon millions of pounds of rotting, festering, fermenting, rat-, maggot-, coyote-, turkey buzzard-, microbe-infested industrial and residential garbage, choking the streets of Baker, covering every surface, turning the town into a veritable hell of decay in the hottest, nastiest summer in years.
Trust me. Lord of the Barnyard's publishing is a blessing bestowed upon us by a lucky turn of some cosmic wheel or the smiling beneficence of some book god in the sky. It is the stuff of which literary legends and cult followings are made. BRAD DALY
THE LIFE AND WORK OF DENNIS POTTER
By W. Stephen Gilbert
(Overlook Press) $29.95
Television playwright Dennis Potter's personal tragedies and triumphs always informed his writing. Never so much through autobiographical details, or the battles with illness (crippling psoriasis) he and so many of his characters faced, but through the sense of one person struggling mightily to communicate via the often fantastical nature of his plays. His admirers rightly point to a final interview done just weeks before his death as one of his great artistic achievements--which makes it perplexing that The Life and Work of Dennis Potter skimps on detailing Potter's daily life. Following a disingenuous two-step in the preface--"the estate denied me access; besides, I cover everything that's relevant"--Gilbert's obstinate drawing of the curtain has a near-Victorian sense of propriety ("To what extent and in what manner he studied his subject [i.e., prostitutes] is for others to determine") that seems out of whack in a study of a writer who so relentlessly vomited up his own rages and neuroses on TV screens.
Despite this shortcoming, American Potter fans will still find the book indispensable for its detailed look at the public Potter: all the TV and film scripts, novels, and even Potter's occasional (when health permitted) newspaper criticism are dealt with. Unavailable but crucial plays such as Blue Remembered Hills and Moonlight on the Highway get their fullest synopses yet. Based on his discussion of familiar works like Brimstone and Treacle and The Singing Detective, Gilbert is an observant, if unexceptional, critic. (I endorse his one idiosyncrasy: Gilbert gives a rare good word for Nick Roeg's underrated Track 29, which Potter rewrote from his Schmeodipus teleplay.) Add a thorough recounting of Potter the businessman--his head-butts with the BBC make for fascinating reading--and an excellent filmography that even lists Potter's television interviews, and this book easily outpoints Faber and Faber's book Potter on Potter. However, the definitive work on this unique artist still lies in the future. BRUCE REID
SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS
by Kate Braverman
(University of Nevada Press) $16
After I read Kate Braverman's first story collection, Squandering the Blue, I was furious. Why had she told nearly the same heartbreaking story 12 times? Why did I feel compelled to read about one woman after another abandoned by husband, children, her own mother? A woman stands at a window and smokes the cigarette that will surely lead back to all her addictions. She looks out at the lights of Los Angeles at night, or at the sunshine that is both redeeming and sinister, and every single time I read this, I cry. I've come to love that book, its obsessions and risks and lush language, every single one of its blue images.
In Braverman's new collection, Small Craft Warnings, her characters still struggle with addictions, and are still abandoned, but they also manage to connect in ways the people of Squandering the Blue never could. A girl considers donating her heart so her grandmother can live; another acknowledges the moment she could have connected to her father. A young woman, alone at night and disinherited by her parents, calls her dying grandmother, cares for her infant daughter, and names daughter after grandmother. The world in this collection is still dangerous, but it is also tender and beautiful. Perhaps the beauty is in the danger, a brilliance in the darkness. Braverman's language lives this paradox as well, tropically overgrown but also "clean-to-a-subatomic level"; she uses simple sentences but her writing is difficult. It demands an emotional reading, an obsessive one. She uses a favorite word--aviary, for example--so frequently it accretes a whole new meaning. Her metaphors untangle only if you read them with the part of your brain that understands the ineffable, the sense of déjà vu or the way we can taste plums in the backs of our throats when we smell their blossoms--the way the young girl in "Hour of the Fathers" wants to take pictures of the air "stinging with citrus," of "the textures that reside without structure in air." This is what Braverman does with words. MAYA SONENBERG