Wednesday, April 27, 2011

THE GARGOYLE by Andrew Davidson

Our unnamed narrator is a pornography mogul with a cocaine habit, who diverts his car over a guardrail and down a cliff when he has a hallucination of flying arrows. Then he spends months undergoing excruciating treatment in a hospital burn unit, contemplating an elaborate suicide plan that he will execute upon his release. Then a woman from the psych ward, Marianne Engel, appears in his room and claims to have been his lover in medieval Germany. In fact, she expects him to believe that she has been alive ever since (and she's not even a vampire). Marianne captivates him with the story of how they met centuries ago and sprinkles in other stories, such as those of a Japanese glass blower and a homosexual Viking. Is she schizophrenic or just wildly imaginative? In any case, as our burn victim is enduring a living hell of his own, we are fed large doses of references to Dante's Inferno, which, I confess, I have never read. As our self-proclaimed atheistic narrator regains his will to live, despite bankruptcy, his gargoyle-esque disfiguration, and the loss of several important appendages, this becomes a tale of redemption, with some heavy-handed religious overtones. I think the metaphors are a little heavy-handed, too, particularly that of fire as a source of rebirth. Is there a mention of a phoenix in there somewhere? Much is made of the narrator's reversal of fortune: before the crash he was beautiful on the outside but ugly on the inside, but now he's…. (You can fill in the blanks here.) My favorite character is Jack Meredith (a woman), an art dealer who handles the sale of the myriad gargoyles that Marianne chisels out in frenzied carving sessions, and I love that Jack has the gall to call our narrator "Crispy Critter." She provides some, but not enough, comic relief in this over-hyped, overly long, predictable fantasy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I was disappointed in the first half of this book. Narrated by nine-year-old Rose, I felt as though I were reading a children's book, especially since several members of Rose's family have supernatural powers that are more like supernatural afflictions. Rose, for example, has the ability to conjure up the emotions of the people who grew, manufactured, and/or prepared the food that she eats. This aspect of the book is a variation on the theme of Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate. At any rate, for Rose, eating at home becomes almost unbearable, as she cannot stomach her mother's loneliness-laced meals. Rose later witnesses through food her mother's secret love affair, which does at least make her mother's meals, full of excitement tainted by guilt, more edible for Rose. Rose's detached father has a seemingly unreasonable phobia of hospitals, and her brother Joseph has a most peculiar knack that seems at first to be perhaps the ability to time travel or to apparate, a la Harry Potter. Joseph is a scientific genius, and I was sure that he had developed a means for beaming himself from place to place, losing molecules with each transformation, but that is not exactly what he's up to, and the book gains momentum as his story unfolds. The scene where Rose gets the gist of what's happening with Joseph's increasingly frequent disappearances changed my entire attitude about the book for the better. The "particular sadness" of this scene is so vivid that it is forever etched in my mind. This book is also reminiscent of Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House, in which a character's exceptionality renders him a social anomaly. What so impresses me about Bender's story is its miraculous ability to evoke deep emotion in the reader, with characters who are so profoundly fictional in their unusual talents and yet so profoundly human in how they cope with these unwanted gifts.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


This is not exactly a book to savor, but the first-, second-, and third-person narrators, skipping forward and backward in time, make this book something of a marvel, something to admire. I have to say that the first chapter was a turnoff, though. Sasha is a remorseless kleptomaniac who pilfers pieces of other people's lives, perhaps attempting to assemble one of her own. She works as an assistant to Bennie, a record producer, whose story we hear next. From there, we move on to Rhea, who was in Bennie's garage punk band, and then to Lou, Bennie's mentor, who takes some hangers-on and his children on a disastrous African safari. Then we meet Scotty, another bandmate of Bennie's, who delivers him a dead fish as a gift, and I'm on board. It's a daisy chain in which the link (not to be confused with the character Linc!) that carries forward to the next chapter is always a surprise, right down to the 75-page Powerpoint presentation, which is itself a daisy chain of arrows, flowcharts, pyramids, equations, and bullet points. As has-been rocker Bosco says, "Time is a goon," and we can't predict who is going to come out ahead and who is going to be sapped by the goon. I just read Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, which, as you might guess, also focuses on time, and I'd be interested to know if Egan has some interest or experience in physics. In fact, in Goon Squad, Jules Jones, a former celebrity reporter in jail, footnotes the account of his ill-fated interview with a starlet with comments about particle entanglement, a spooky property of photons that seems to parallel the manner in which the characters go their separate ways and then accordion back together or form a closed loop to one another. Last but not least, there's a child's obsession with the pauses in music that make you think the song is over when it's really not. Perhaps these pauses are a metaphor for the spans of time in these characters' lives in which they seem to have lost their way and then manage to scramble back for at least one more stanza.

Here's my daisy chain. The title of this book makes me think of the TV show The Mod Squad. It had a character named Linc, and so does this book. The TV show also starred Peggy Lipton, who lived for a time with record producer Lou Adler. This book has a record producer named Lou. Go figure.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

HALF BROKE HORSES by Jeannette Walls

This novel is based on the life of the author's grandmother but lacks the shock value of her memoir, The Glass Castle, and I think that's a good thing. After a scrappy childhood in Texas, 15-year-old Lily Casey heads off alone on a month-long trek on her horse Patches to Arizona for a teaching job. Her teaching gigs end when teaching opportunities are offered to returning WWI vets. Lily's next stop is Chicago, where she receives more than the formal education she was seeking. A friend's accidental death and Lily's brief marriage to a bigamist are innocence-blasting events that will shape her adulthood. And Chicago is not the last place that she leaves because the memories are too painful. This book, though, is not a tragedy. It's the story of an indomitable woman making her own way and then raising a family in the Wild West. She wins at poker and horseback contests and wins our hearts as we root for her at every juncture, even as she starts selling bootleg liquor to supplement her family's dwindling resources, hiding the goods from the revenuers under her baby's crib. Since this is not strictly a biography, and the protagonist died while the author was a child, it's impossible to know which parts of this book are fiction, but I have to believe that the main events really happened. It's a ride worth taking, especially if you've read The Glass Castle. This book provides some insight into the background of the author's mother, Rosemary Smith Walls, who is a difficult child, with a warped sense of livestock welfare.

Monday, April 4, 2011

PEARL by Darlene Cox

Sheriff Jon Atherton of Faircloth, Virginia, has been having an affair with Pearl Sutton. Now she's been murdered. He was probably the next-to-last person to see her alive. Jon's right-hand man, first Deputy Tom Fogerty, also had an encounter with Pearl the day before. Deputy Wallace Aiken is a religious fanatic with an eye for detail and has an even darker secret than his two colleagues. What I liked about this book is that it's refreshingly straightforward. I didn't miss the usual red herrings or the dodging of the truth by all the law enforcement agents. Early on, Tom and Jon admit to each other their relationships with Pearl, whose marriage, by the way, is not what it seems—another nugget that the author reveals early in the novel. In fact, Tom and Jon are no saints, but they're good at their jobs, and this book, although a murder mystery, is more about how they go about solving a crime—2 crimes, actually. In this sleepy little town, another young woman has turned up dead. Now Jon and Tom don't know if they're looking for one murderer or two or which is the lesser of two evils. I found it interesting that the reader already knows who committed the second murder. This was a nice touch in that we get to deduce who murdered Pearl, while at the same time watch Tom and Jon follow leads toward reaching the correct conclusion about the second murder. This dual story line gives us the best of both worlds, at least where murder mysteries are concerned, and also saddens us with the story of Jon's personal regret for what his relationship with Pearl could have been, had he only been privy to her secret.