Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews

Briefly Noted - Fiction

reviews by Kevin McGowin

Silas House. The Coal Tattoo.
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2004. 324 pp.

* * * *

I'm pleased to note this novel, Silas House's third, and only regret that my allotted space and time aren't enough to grant it the full review it merits. House is the master folk artist of American literature: the story is simple, the sentences are simple and on the surface so are the characters. But House is possessed of a spiritual force few writers come even close to having, and his writing resonates with something primal. His landscapes (both external and internal) erupt with a majestic grandeur, and an urgency that somehow reminds me of John Fogerty's singing voice at its most searing.

House is an emotional writer without ever resorting to pathos. His voice can reach a wide variety of readers on a strata of levels, but his subjects are timeless: family, home, love and death. I've not read anyone that even remotely sounded like House since I was a child and allowed myself to be fully invested in the lives of the characters and their situations, to think of them as really and actually human and feel their feelings. To be able to achieve this at this level, to make his main character, Anneth, so sexy and yet so vulnerably human, is something, I think, that one must be born with.

Having said that, there's something about the deceptive simplicity of Silas House's writing that leaves me a little stunned and disoriented, too—like Life. And I applaud him for this facility. Great fairy tales can do this, too, but House is a realist of sorts…I'll call it spiritual realism as opposed to magic realism or all that stuff. He's not some writer who seems to announce at the outset, Now I'm gonna impress you. He simply gets in between the blood and the bone, and gives voice to the space and the matter in which his characters and their world have existed since before we were alive.


David Leavitt. The Body of Jonah Boyd.
Bloomsbury. 2004. 215 pp.

* * *

Whether or not I like David Leavitt's fiction really depends on what mood I'm in, and this goes for Leavitt more than for mostÜat times I find his quite funny and keen, at others catty and inconsequential. I suppose he's at some point all of these broad and unsupported adjectives in his latest novel (novella, really) and the effects are intendedÜbecause like him or not, Leavitt is a really good writer. He's best in shorter prose forms, and has used them to his benefit for most of his still-brief career; and while there's nothing new in Jonah Boyd, it's good to see Leavitt mature as a writer since the hilarious but very uneven trio of stories in Arkansas a few years back. The best one in it was the first part of the one about a grad student in California named David Leavitt who will write term papers for blowjobs from fratboys, but the rest weren't as transgrssively hilarious.

This novel is set in late-60s California, and I've got say that in a work this brief I get a little tired of hearing the rigs and the upholstery described, no matter how perfectly the nouns apply. It's in part about a family, and at times that family seems artificial but if it didn't Leavitt's winking wit wouldn't seem so keen. In a larger sense it's about an Academic family, or rather about academic politics, and here Leavitt is really in his elementÜhe's a lifelong Academic himself, who publishes novels every so often, it's how he got tenureÜbut he's no David Lodge. He'll laugh in the face of he that feeds him but never bite the hand, which is an invaluable talent to learn, just like disguising your characters and changing yourself into a woman for the protagonist of a fiction. Or part of it.

There is a certain lack of "warmth" from the writer, though, and I'd call it the narrator were it not the same person that narrates all of David Leavitt's books, even the Travel Book about Florence. It's hard to placeÜit's as if this person doesn't much care for you, or moreover give a shit if you like his books or not. HeyÜhe's published.

But I'm sure that's just the Constant Comment talking and I hear David Leavitt is quite a charming man, well brought-up. I enjoyed his book, too, it's just that I forgot it once I was done.


Courtney Eldridge. Unkempt (stories by).
Harcourt. 2004. 262 pp.

* -

On the cover flap, Dave Eggers, author of... whatever, is quoted as saying, "There are echoes of Dixon here, and Moody, and Wallace, and maybe even early Carver..." Yes, Moody I know, since he blurbs her too, and otherwise... "Tolstoy, Dickens, and maybe even early Chekhov" this list is not. What do these guys do, have Blurb Parties?

Instead of boasting in her bio about how she's dropped out of three colleges and lives in New York City, and publishing nearly everything she does in Dave Eggers' Magazine, Courtney Eldridge probably, like, needs to grow up, really, and uh, get an ear for, like, dialogue and, y'know, narrative, and like stop writing like, oh my God, this, ‘cause even unsophisticated people don't really like talk this way and it's also like just boring, like the writers she culls blurbs from. And so instead of doing that she should just like, well oh my God, read some other writers or something maybe, okay? I'm like, serious. Y'know.


Richard K. Weems. The Need for Character.
(Fiction Chapbook) Revelever Publications. 2004. 40 pp.

* * * *

One of the things I like most about writing Briefly Noted items is that they don't have to be full-length reviews. They don't even have to be reviews. I have some leeway, tooÜhell, I could actually sit here and note, in brief, that I just saw a '71 puce green Dodge Dart cross Highland Avenue and that would be enough for a Slow Day, if I made something of it. Actually, it was a brown Corsair, but who's checking.

So when, at the 11th hour here in an issue that required a LOT of reading I get an e-mail that there's New Work out by Richard K. Weems, I do what I've just now doneÜI stop what I'm doing, pour myself some coffee, sit down and read it. I do this because, in the interests of "professionalism," I should say that I went to graduate school with the man, these twenty or whatever years gone, and I considered him a friend and liked his work. Did then, do now. Me & Weems used to write in graduate school while everyone else was out drinking and talking about writing. Then, we'd have a piece done, and go out at 11 and put them all to bed. And talk about stuff, but rarely writing.

And here, in his second chapbook, one can see that Weems is gearing up for the Book and wonders why Harcourt hasn't taken one yetÜbut they will. But here (which is all that matters anyway), in these ten short-shorts, Weems shows why Dubuse said that writers today (he said it in the late 80s) would do well not to expect to publish until the age of 39 or so. Why? Weems is letter-perfect. He's funny, absurd, writing with both gusto and control and charging his work with a genuine empathy I rarely ever see.

No one I've read of late can distill a moment like WeemsÜhis stories are much longer than they are, if you know what I mean, and you should. I recall being impressed with his command of technique several years ago when he wrote a memorable but longer story about MengeleÜand here it is again, but now it's the time-lapsarian fuction of everyday life, the way even a word is imbued with layers of time and memory.

The only thing missing in Weems' fiction is an explosion. Of laughter, of tears, or both. And yet it's implicit here in a mere forty pages, and the tension is riveting. It's good, it's damn good, and I'm proud of the man who wrote it. Okay, Manhattan taken. Now you take Berlin.


Christina Balint. Ophelia's Fan.
Norton. 2004. 351 pp.

* *

I had high hopes for this one, as it's the story of Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress who triumphed in England and is credited by many with having "brought Shakespeare to the French" as the cover flap has itÜand there's a good deal of truth there. She was also the "muse" for Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, and in many circles today is still best-known as the great composer's muse and later, wife. I don't know a great deal about the French years, but I've studied the Romantic Era English Theatre more than perhaps anyone you've ever met, and figured, heyÜKean works, so did (earlier) Siddons, why not Smithson?

Because of who wrote it and how it's written. Balint's composing a fanciful Creative Dissertation on, I guess, Theatre History here, complete with an impressive and extensive bibliography at the end (though she'd have done well to look at a few other period works, and if welcome to e-mail me). But as a novel°∫ok, this is not a novel. It's a stuttering, stammering, precious, fanciful I-don't-know-what about DEVIL take what, but as a novel, okay, it's just plain God-awful, and won't win any fans for Balint, Berlioz, or English Theatre History.

Yet Balint has potential. Lest all this research go to waste, I'd advise her to either go for broke and turn it into a Cabaret with Vaudeville numbers circa early Jimmy Durante interspersed, go home and write the thing as a straight-on dissertation, or both. Then, after working on stories about whatever for a little while, get her technique together, and make a Comeback, perhaps as a brainy Romance Novelist.

I'll even give her an extra star this time as credit on the success of that later effort.


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