by A.M. Homes (Rob Weisbach) $26
You've seen them standing in line at the QFC. She shivers under the AC in her Eddie Bauer T-shirt. Her husband joins her in a minute with a bottle of mid-priced wine and some turkey dogs. He's the man who flirted with you by the Odwalla. You think you know all about their evening: family barbecue, a Disney video with young sons, tepid sex, lights out.
Then A.M. Homes is at your side like a wicked angel, whispering things about them that have no place in anesthetized suburbia. Elaine let the neighborhood Martha Stewart fuck her with a homemade dildo; Paul tattooed his testicles at his paramour's insistence; they both attempted arson on their own house. Homes kidnaps your Brady Bunch fantasies and plunges them into a hysteria of suburban id. Her brutal words spear every secret emotion, make you blush in complicity at your lecherous extremes and most pathetic moments of need.
Her dysfunctional stars fumble through a short span of days as husband and wife, mother and father, "lost in themselves--each awkward in a different way, each with reasons." He endures offices filled with "the volatile vapors of hot-coffee farts, the fumy flatulence of breakfast cereals." She is trapped at home, wandering "from room to room, thinking she should clean, she should dust, she should vacuum." Their two sons are neglected by an overwrought adult world that still pretends the boys aren't looking, especially tender, nine-year-old Sammy who is forever waiting to go home "in his Superman pajamas, his superpowers having failed him."
For Homes, there's no point in retracing the niceties on the surface of her characters. She knows you know them. Instead, her clean prose exhumes the fouled souls beneath with an absurd appetite for ruin, gluttony, and fucking. She knows you're listening--rationalizing your curiosity, embarrassed by your empathy--and her every word aims to make you turn your head and stare. ARLENE KIM
THE SEVEN MADMEN
by Roberto Arlt, translated by Nick Caistor (Serpent's Tail) $14.99
Devotees of Jorge Luis Borges reading this novel will realize right away that Borges owes a great debt to Roberto Arlt, a fellow Argentine. Though the two were roughly contemporaneous, Borges did most of his writing after Arlt's death in 1942. Both writers were fascinated by the sprawling city of Buenos Aires, and the mythology of its lowlifes and criminals. While Borges preferred to turn out elegant metaphysical conundrums, Arlt's novel is a long howl of suffering.
The conduit for this suffering is Remo Erdosain. He's a failure and a loser by any standard, acutely aware of the depth of his suffering but possessed of a powerful inner fantasy life, in which he humiliates himself even further. If the novel were about nothing else, it would still deserve a place beside Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Hesse on the bookshelf of your average angst-ridden teenager with literary pretensions.
But The Seven Madmen is funny and weird too, with a degree of fucked-upness that recalls Beckett's novels. Erdosain falls in with a gang of cynical revolutionaries who are determined to enslave the world with an ideology based on lies and funded by a network of brothels. They're completely up-front about their fascism and clearly thrilled with the prospect of killing thousands of people. Erdosain, as a sometime inventor with a mechanical bent, will be in charge of devising the weapons of mass destruction. To get started, they simply have to kill Gregorio Barsut, Erdosain's wife's cousin, and steal his life savings. In the days leading up to Barsut's murder, Erdosain alternately exults in the power he hopes soon to wield, and is poleaxed by the utter futility of his existence.
Books that are this weird, and weird in this way, are rare and should be read. DAN TENENBAUM
by Barbara (Plotz, P.O. Box 819, Stuyvesant Station, New York NY 10009) $2 + two stamps
Those looking for Jewish reading material that's not aimed at Yiddish-speaking senior citizens, families, or intellectuals can rejoice at the arrival of Plotz, the best zine ever. Twentysomething Barbara publishes Plotz (named after the Yiddish word meaning "to burst") from her East Village apartment. The monthly zine outs celeb Jews ("Mixmaster Mike's last name is Schwartz!... Daniel the Garbage bass player proudly sports a star of David on his guitar strap!"), provides a glossary of Yiddish words, and offers much incisive commentary. In "The Curious Case of the Self-Hating Jew," Ben Goldberg describes the awakening that came when he transferred from Jewish day school to public school: "The Christian kids were cool. They got into fights! Their parents drank! They were allowed to watch television whenever they wanted!" Equally right-on are laments that Murphy Brown's Miles Silverburg doesn't have his own spin-off, and an interview with Jon Stewart (Hebrew name Schmeil Yakov) that asks the tough questions: Will he change the five questions on the Daily Show to four for Passover? And what did he wear for his bar mitzvah? Plotz also has "Half full" profiles of half Jews like Julian Koster, and menschen whose religion is never stated, like Rhoda Morgenstern. Barbara also distributes "Plotz lite," mini cartoon books about, for instance, the mikveh, a ritual bath for women. SAMANTHA M. SHAPIRO