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Front Row Seating: Independents Premiere Debut Authors and First English Translations.

Work Title: Front Row Seating: Independents Premiere Debut Authors and First English Translations

Work Author(s): Todd Mercer


Byline: Todd Mercer

The odds against a first novel achieving both critical success and brisk sales are totally depressing; outstanding fiction regularly disappears into remainder bins while meaningless cotton candy flies off the bestsellers rack. Even so, ForeWord hopes to rescue a few talented writers who show respect to readers with their fresh messages and storytelling chops.

The themes these books explore are the components of inner lives which steer decision-making and outward action: how identity is defined or obscured, the relative values of thinking to feeling, the impact of culture and surroundings. Sometimes chance plays an enormous role as the subjects of stories disappear and circle back to their origins.

Much like movies, fiction is expected to wake us up or carry heaviness away. When done well, a good story entertains and informs the intellect, as do each of these substantial offerings. Amble in from high pastures, take a mental health day: here's a screened sampler of the most substantial debuts and translations available from independent publishers.

Box Office Gold

"And deep in the woods I could feel that which I have hunted all my life calling to me except now it was myself who was calling..." With such shrewdly poetic prose, Quinnehtukqut (Starcherone Books, 978-0-9788811-2-2) generates an involuntary hum in the nervous system. It's a structurally innovative debut; an atmospheric puzzler constructed of myths, memories, rumors, fairy tales, and history books. Joshua Harmon is a winner of an NEA fellowship in fiction who teaches Creative Writing at Vassar College.

The Connecticut River's headwaters in Coos County, New Hampshire, are in a sparsely populated backwoods contiguous to Quebec. The area was settled partly on gold speculation. It once briefly seceded from the US, calling itself the Republic of Indian Stream. By the 1920s, outsiders are visiting rustic lake resorts, and no one knows anymore if there really was a man named Jimmy Frye who ranged the countryside and turned to murder once a year.

Quinnehtukqut's four widely divergent sections interrelate, though Harmon plays tricks with the angle of observation. The concluding section, "Farmhouse in a Fold of Fields," is delivered as an over/under pair of narrative ribbons in which two women in different times take last looks at their meaning-imbued plots of land. The form is inspired by John Ashbery; the execution is infinitely more effective than Ginsburg's cut-up experiments.

Plot strands dovetail for engaged readers to join. Narrators of questionable reliability commingle legend and fact without distinction, allegorical and foreboding in the vein of Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark. Even the Snow White and Huntsman figures appear in other guises. Exceptionally well-designed and fully realized, this gorgeous literary novel is postmodern in the most smoothed-out sense, and one of the best out this year from any size publisher.

The Sicilian immigrants of The End (Graywolf Press, 978-1-55597-498-5) haunt their Elephant Park section of Cleveland as much as they inhabit it. Among them are people who attribute a kind of holiness to ritual behavior and others who are beyond any belief in regulation. The story begins with Rocco, a baker with an iron constitution and a permanently estranged family. Rocco bakes bread A la Cal Ripkin, a straight 10,685 days before news of his son's misfortune in the Korean War ends the streak.

Off autopilot, the baker for once wonders at the state of the world. He debates the comparative value of ideas to feelings in the neighborly company of Mrs. Marini and an oddly grown up teenage boy. A widow for forty years, Mrs. Marini's second act reflects a willfully restructured attitude that allows no room for guilt or unhappiness. She is intent on shaping an heir and teaching an apprentice her secret occupation.

The End's old school men worry that their American sons aren't hardened enough by disappointment. The immigrants seem most American when speaking of white flight and the shifting of neighborhoods' ethnic makeup. Every family in this novel has been dispassionately busted to rubble, and the urban expanse isolates remaining individuals.

Like the single-minded Rocco, new novelist Salvatore Scibona, who serves as the writing coordinator for Provincetown's Fine Arts Work Center, steadily fine-tuned this debut for an incredible 3,650 days, the entire lifespan of a dog. His care for language shows at every dignified turn.

V.S. Naipaul's hounded and luckless protagonist in Mister Biswas may have suffered longer for less return than the ruthlessly henpecked Indian nationalist Nanaji of Nilita Vachani's HomeSpun (Other Press, 978-1-59051-285-2) does in British-administered Delhi during the 1930s and 1940s, but that contest would be close. In the view of Nanaji's devoted granddaughter, Sweta, the man was a saint.

Nanaji's asceticism is opposed at every juncture by his wife Naneeji's love of luxury, and they cross each other in a series of tactical skirmishes referred to as the "War of Textile." The marriage finally founders after Nanaji's prized cotton cloth, hand-woven by the Mahatma, is ruined from scrubbing out kettles.

Nanaji's minute of revolutionary glory comes when he's selected by Mahatma Gandhi to protest imperial occupation. The police haul him away almost instantly. When the British later relinquish their colonial hold, long-suffering nationalists relocate from hovels to swank homes in the government compounds and positions implementing the new policies. (Before independence, Nanaji's family lived in half a single room, politely deaf to the distress cries from a quarreling brood on the other side of the dividing sheet.)

A second thread follows a half Muslim/half Hindu woman named Anu Reza who begins a crusade of investigative journalism upon the shocking news that her former fiance was one of the Air Force pilots killed in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. She probes a military cover-up and finds widespread self-censorship by the press: "War reporting is an infantile tussle between two belligerent boys: I'm bigger. I'm better. I'm stronger. I'm fitter."

Indian-born and New York-based documentary filmmaker---and witty new novelist---Vachani applies warm humor to tragic events. She builds not one but several easily visualized characters who find the courage to go against the grain and speak truth to power. This tri-generational epic of broad appeal is a natural catalyst for discussion in a book club setting.

Found in Translation

Other Press makes it a double feature with their second worthy offering, Michael Kleeberg's The King of Corsica (978-1-59051-256-2), translated from German by David Dollenmayer. It's an eighteenth-century political intrigue and an inquiry into the psychology of an actual minor nobleman with a gift for self-promotion. Theodor von Neuhoff, a sometimes impoverished, always enterprising spy of grandiose theatricality and underdeveloped loyalty, was a polarizing adventurer who predated Napoleon by a generation or so.

Theodor avoids serving in the French army by wrangling an entry-level position at the Versailles court of Louis XIV. There he learns the power of appearances and the utility of slippery language, acquired talents which carry him to an unusual series of opportunities and failures.

He hits the big time when he's named sovereign of Corsica, although the limitations on power Theodor derides as "too much Constitution." A coronation proves far easier than holding on to the monarchy---or dodging the collectors of gambling debts---and he eventually becomes aware that bridge-burning behavior prevents genuine relationships. But is change possible? "It was strange and sad the way people remained episodes in his life and disappeared before they could become probably functions the same way in reverse." Clever analogies and apt similes help to reincarnate this flawed historical figure.

Russian writer Alexander Ikonnikov makes his first appearance in English thanks to translator Andrew Bromfield. Lizka and Her Men (Serpent's Tail, 978-1-85242-881-5) measures the title character's irregular evolution against a motley succession of lovers who represent diverse segments of post-Perestroikan society of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Money is everything, though no one has any, save for party officials such as Lizka's unlikely live-in boyfriend of a couple years. Even a broke poet has to rustle up pocket money for fancy dates to ensure Lizka's interest.

Her twenty-something female roommates and coworkers from the municipal trolleybus authority decry the pool of eligible men, so drastically reduced by deaths and maiming from endless secret wars. Despite that condemnation of "bastards and scumbags," or "sponges or dictators," Lizka does marry. A colorful passage explains the tradition of ransoming the bride---modified to allow for the stairways and corridors of the nondescript Soviet apartment blocks. The groom and his allies answer questions and line their progress with a continuous trail of paper currency, all the while downing intoxicants set in their path by the bride's confederates. The successful ransomer reaches his beloved before his money or sobriety's exhausted.

Here, the challenges of subsistence strain natural youthful optimism; no one expects anything good to happen by itself. Lizka's roommate uses the leverage of potential humiliation gained from her job at a venereal clinic when visiting her "patients'" restaurants. She counsels Lizka "' keep up and on the go all the time to avoid falling into a melancholy stupor. And you have to think less!'"

Few places are more isolated or closer to the elemental earth than Mongolia's nearly empty Altai Mountains. Organic authenticity is the ever-present backdrop to The Blue Sky (Milkweed Editions, 978-1-57131-064-4), the first of Tuvan shaman Galsan Tschinag's thirty books of poetry and prose to appear in English. This leadoff autobiographical novel of a trilogy covers the 1950s' childhood of a nomadic shepherd boy. The dreamlike rhythms of the steppes and passes are a soothing tonic. The boy's perceptions are so uncluttered that he says: "...I believed I could sense life itself. The sensation was as corporeal and palpable as if I stood in a river and felt the prickling, cooling water on my skin."

Wealth is measured by the size of a family's flock, and sheep are accepted as legal tender. Personal messages travel between households orally, carried nearly verbatim in the memories of travelers. The enviable innocence of this nomadic sky-worshipping family is bound to fall to the insistent forces of modernization, though for these twilight years of the old ways, "Nobody knew what war was, but everybody agreed it was terrible."

Translator Katharina Rout traveled days on horseback to the remote land beyond the Tuvans' Great Mountain to meet with the author and research the book's subjects directly. Take that, all you armchair philosophers!

The Short Feature & the Matinee

A pillar of American poetry, widely recognized for Mercurochrome (2001) and Bathwater Wine (1998), Wanda Coleman checks in with a cohesive volume of thirteen short stories called Jazz and Twelve O'Clock Tales (Black Sparrow Books, 978-1-57423-212-7). Most protagonists are hardworking women, frustrated that a good effort or a comforting relationship can be undone by the smallest, least intentional causes. They seek spiritual nourishment from the performances of Angelino jazz musicians in joints where Easy Rawlins might take a date. But the men these women gravitate toward are past their primes or too fond of illicit fixes to hold themselves together indefinitely.

In "Jazz at Twelve" an under-recognized songwriter can't believe she will always create in obscurity, saying, "I'm living for the day when women's music will receive as much attention as men's or dying for the day of my posthumous discovery by some lover of innovative fusion." She's a cautiously hopeful reporter of the moment, unaware that the author is sharing future calamities with readers as asides.

Coleman builds anticipation by holding back central information until it bursts through, washing away assumptions. The fast opener, "Joy Ride," signals heightened stakes to anyone expecting fiction to cover only recombinations of love troubles and the struggle for the daily bread. The richest pieces here ("My Brain's Too Tired to Think" and "Winona's Choice") are those with enough length for persuasion and complication. The overarching theme of coping with inequity extends beyond the economic and racial varieties to take in the bittersweet mismatches of one-sided attachments.

Whacked (Weinstein Books, 978-1-60286-017-9) is a window on the life of Dani Hale, who writes teleplays for a forensic crime drama called Flesh. She does indeed rip shows from the headlines. The circumstances of Marilyn Monroe's demise first spurred Dani's drive to become an expert on death. Now she's well-paid for the knowledge, but some people are uneasy in her company.

At home, Dani's a voracious snoop and an amateur password cryptographer who threatens to slide into stalkerdom. Her presumed fiance, a director who likes to shoot footage at night, suffers a perpetual mismatch between receipts and his supposed whereabouts. Meet the most obvious philanderer since Larry from Three's Company.

Dani dumps the suave fool when clues become too concrete to rationalize away, but the single life oscillates between lonesome stretches and disappointing outtakes. The applicants for replacement man are a pathetic lot: other cheaters, a spanker, a racist, a pedophile, and at least one murderer (who Dani's friend believes could be her best match).

In this debut novel of entertainment and travel, telejournalist Jules Asner strikes a stable balance between laughs and heavy material. The amazingly shallow materialism and xerographically reproduced speech quirks of showbiz circles skewer Hollywood's artifice, regal hypocrisy, cynical romances, and me-too bandwagoneering, all with the panache of the idiosyncratic protagonist.

Civilization must be more than an idealistic rumor, but these books collectively suggest that it is always taking place elsewhere. The dark woods don't have it, neither does the age of reason and mercy prevail in concrete and plastic metroplexes. And interpersonal relations are just as surely in stalled development, beta-testing with unintended consequences. In the face of corrosive realism, hopeful characters find an avenue forward, they reframe the situation, spin it into favorable terms, then grow faith in their own words. These premiere works of fiction tug at heart-strings and fuel the intellect. The future is in good hands. Roll the credits.
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Title Annotation:novels
Author:Mercer, Todd
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2008
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