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Front coverAn astonishing review of my New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) just posted over at a site called Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews.

The reviewer and I belong to the same LibraryThing group and she mentioned she was picking up a copy but, sheesh, I didn’t expect such a smart and, yes, glowing review.

It’s the first critique of any sort the poems have received. I get general rumblings of praise from the people who’ve read New & Selected Poems but folks seem reluctant to address the subject matter or prominent themes. I worried, in my Afterword, that the collection might be too personal, too intense and I think there might be something to that. If you watch the footage of the book launch, the poems are often received in what I would describe as strained silence. Sherron told me that at one point a woman near her was softly weeping.

Dear Lord

What kind of strange zeitgeist has my verse tapped into?

Poems are a hard enough sell these days—apocalyptic, mind-bending excavations on the human spirit may not be what readers are looking for.

Cripes, look at the bestseller list.

Yup, once again, it appears I’ve missed the mark.

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"Gulag"After a long drive across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal, Frazier arrived at a long-abandoned prison camp near the town of Topolinoe. The camps along the Topolinskaya Highway were among the most dreaded destinations in Stalin’s gulag, the prison system that claimed the lives of more than a million people during the height of the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. Frazier walked through one of the barracks where inmates starved and froze in the Siberian winter: “This interior offered little to think about besides the limitless periods of suffering that had been crossed off here, and the unquiet rest these bunks had held.” As always, Frazier locates the apt historical anecdote that captures the horror with precision. He tells the story of two child prisoners who were given a pair of guard-dog puppies to raise, then struggled to find names for them: “The poverty of their surroundings had stripped their imaginations bare. Finally they chose names from common objects they saw every day. They named one puppy Ladle and the other Pail.”

-Joshua Hammer (from his New York Times review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia)

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I have to get this off my chest.

Right now there are, count ‘em, three volumes from E.L. James’ vile, puke-stained series Fifty Shades of Grey at the top of the bestseller list.

Let me remind you folks:  this “author” honed her chops on Twilight fan fiction and has, apparently, graduated at the head of her class when it comes to derivative, amateurish, abysmally written gutter trash.  Reading the first five lines of any offering by Ms. James immediately reveals her paucity of skills, the crudeness of her prose.

I would never have believed it was possible that popular fiction could sink any lower than Stephenie Meyer…but then along came Amanda Hocking (ptui! ptui!) and, now, (God help western civilization) E.L. James.

Am I supposed to draw comfort from the fact that an unheralded talent can still score a lucrative contract from a venerable publisher? Should I holler and celebrate because at least two of these authors come from the independent/DIY/self-publishing world, same as l’il ol’ me?

Sorry, but that’s not the case. I’m embarrassed by the success of authors as horrible and sub-literate as James, Hocking, et al.  I’m embarrassed to belong to a society where the printed word has become so devalued and compromised, this kind of crap is not only published but gobbled up by a public whose brains have gone soft and fatty from all the junk food we take in through our eyes, mouths and ears.  We immerse ourselves in trash, refuse to task our minds with challenging artists and works, seek escapism the way a junkie craves the needle.  The mind is a muscle and ours’ have gone flabby, resisting even the lightest exercise.

Video games, comic book movies, books written for an intended audience with a mental age of fourteen…all part of a decline, the barbarians at the gates garbed in corporate robes, enticing us with baubles, buying our delinquent souls with the equivalent of beads and flim-flam.

I shudder to think what the next step down the evolutionary ladder might be, how much lower literature can sink.

What comes after E.L. James?

That’s something too terrible to ponder…

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“I…am…not…afraid…of…you.”

Standing before a tower of unread books, feeling a bit queasy but also defiant.  These are books that have bedeviled me for months, years, decades.  Tomes I know will be excellent, enlightening, life-enhancing…as soon as I find time to read them.  Others are volumes I read many moons ago and want to revisit.  Some big, fat, brain-building Pynchon titles, a few of the early Cormac McCarthys; works I read when I was young, stupid and trying to impress everybody.  Now when I read them, I’ll be a helluva lot more worldly, slightly smarter and apt to grasp more than I did during that initial encounter.  Can you really comprehend the magnitude of Gravity’s Rainbow or Marcel Proust’s convoluted, gorgeous prose at nineteen or twenty?

Never in hell.  I’m convinced human beings don’t start developing adult-sized brains until they’ve turned thirty and have popped at least one kid.  A teenager reading War and Peace is like handing a mandrill an iPad. Seriously.

This past week I was visiting The Big City and had occasion (okay, I lurked) to listen while a couple of teenage girls discussed their school reading assignments.

“This book,” one said, stabbing a livid finger at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “ought to be banned.”

“Did you read The Englishman’s Boy?”

“Only the chapter I had to.”

“Me too! Catcher in the Rye sucked too. What’s the big deal? The Outsiders--”

“That was half decent.”

“It was o-kay. But the main guy is such a whiner…”

And so on.  Book club night at the Stephen Hawking residence it was not.

What were those gals doing, hanging out in a book store?  Waiting for the rain to subside?  I wonder what sort of books they actually liked?

* * * * *

I must do something about my To Be Read pile. Make that piles.  It’s getting scary.  We’re running out of space.  Books are double-stacked on the shelves, some even (gasp!) relegated to the floor.  Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, essays…good God, things have gotten completely out of hand.  I catch my wife looking at me, her expression cagy: pondering involuntary commitment? What are the legal hurdles?  How much can she get for all these fucking books?

And now that I’m hooked up to the library system through the internet, I can log on and troll for more books, secure them free, via inter-library loans.  If three weeks pass and I need more time, I can renew the tomes in question with a few taps on my keyboard.

Sweet.

Or perhaps not.  It’s like having after hours access to the world’s biggest bookstore.  I get messages as soon as another book is ready for pickup at my local branch.  Can’t wait to get down there, scoop it up and bear it home…

Understand, I already have dozens, scores of books—wonderful books, classic books—waiting to be read but I’m still ordering more.  Isn’t that weird?  Isn’t that, well, nuts?

It’s called bibliophilia, folks, and I’ve got it bad.

I’m a collector on the verge of becoming a hoarder.  When I find a good bookstore, especially a good used book store, my hands get clammy, my stomach churns and I feel light-headed, like I’m suffering from some kind of sugar deficit. I kid you not. I’ve heard junkies say similar things when they find themselves in the vicinity of dope or paraphernalia. A feeling of anticipation that leaves you weak in the knees.

Have to say, when I visited my last big box book barn I didn’t experience anything like that.  The “New Release” shelves didn’t turn my crank at all—the majority of the fiction seemed to be geared toward women, and particularly stupid ones at that. The most dreadful shite. Spotted a number of offerings in the history section, including David McCullough’s bio of Truman, but the prices scared me off. After all my browsing, over an hour in the store, I came away with one thin volume, a beautiful little Penguin edition of Stefan Zweig’s novella Chess.  That’s it.

Pitiful, ain’t it?

But, of course, it isn’t just books.  I’m no longer part of the desired demographic, and that goes for music, movies, television, you name it.  I’m an old fogie with a critical brain and a handle on his spending.  Not exact a walking advertisement for consumerism.

No, the ones the advertisers, viral marketers et al are after are the 16-25 bunch, the gamers and mall crowd, armed with credit cards and completely lacking impulse control.  Unmarried, no kids, disposable income, too much time on their hands. The morons that have kept Michael Bay, JJ Abrams and Bill Gates filthy rich and reduced the popular arts to public urinals.  Thanks, kids!

We have them to thank for the current state of publishing/bookselling.  The explosion of graphic novels, the flood of zombies and vampires and knock-off fantasy and franchise novels, and media tie-ins…can you say dumbing down?  That extended period I spent in the big box store was most educational.  It told me that in their efforts to cater to their sought after demographic, traditional publishers won’t just go for the lowest common denominator, they are willing, nay eager, to debase the language, alienate their traditional clientele and reduce an art form to mere commodity.  The rot is evident in every genre—what little “literary” fiction out there is getting harder to find, forced off the shelves by establishments that offer whole sections devoted to the excremental writing of James Patterson, Jody Picoult and the like.

I turn on commercial radio, flip through the TV channels during a rare hotel visit, check on-line movie listings for anything that might look promising and I feel old.  Nothing in the entertainment world speaks to me these days.  I don’t look forward to the summer movies or check to see who made the Oscar shortlist.  Ignore the bestseller lists, rarely buy a magazine or new book…and we’re the last family I know of who still don’t have cable TV.

I’ve been a reader all my life.  Forty years with my nose in books.  Books have always offered me comfort and consolation.  In childhood, they were a security blanket, helping me escape the depredations of reality.  As I got older, they became my primary sources of learning, as well as steering me down spiritual/mystical paths I might otherwise have missed. Without books, I would not be the person I am today.  I would be one of them:  mall zombies, semi-literates, half-simian.

All this might go a long way toward explaining that ever-growing TBR pile. I never stop seeking out new Masters, new teachers; men and women who can perform alchemy with the printed word, transmuting it into something more than mere sentences on a page.

A casual scan of the pictures reveals not too many of the books are of recent vintage.  Most picked up from thrift shops, secondhand places or on-line purchases; heavily discounted, showing the effects of their time in remainder bins or battered about in the mail.

New and old enthusiasms:  Samuel Beckett, Walter Kirn, Ken Kalfus, Richard Powers, Robert Stone, Raymond Queneau, Roberto Bolano, Fernando Pessoa, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Denis Johnson, Tom McCarthy, Terence McKenna, Georges Perec, Jorge Luis Borges, Gert Ledig, W.G. Sebald…and that’s just scratching the surface. These Jpegs hardly do my TBR pile justice.  It goes on and on…

When am I going to find time to read the gorgeous edition of Don Quixote Sherron picked up for me at least five years ago (translation by Edith Grossman)?  How about the three volumes by the incomparable Louis Ferdinand Celine that are only an arm’s length away from where I sit, typing these words?  Will I ever tackle Madame Bovary, War and Peace or the 1,000+ pages of The Collected Short Stories of J.G. Ballard?

Not as long as I keep adding to that pile.

How many titles are on the “Wishlist” I’ve kept in the same steno pad for the past twenty years?  Two hundred?  Three hundred?  The roster constantly revised; one title acquired and crossed off, three others added…

I’m a sick man.  Addicted to the printed word.  Always seeking out the best of the best, authors who present fresh perspectives, re-ignite the language, push the envelope thematically and stylistically.  Just when I think I’m making headway, someone mentions Ben Okri or Joseph McElroy.  How could I have missed them?  Fabulous, unprecedented talents, my collection incomplete without them.

The kind of authors no longer being published by the trads and, thus, increasingly unfamiliar to today’s readers.

Creators capable of composing work that ennobles us as a species, presenting an alternative to the superficiality of the processed, plastic universe the corporate types are peddling, the reassuring sameness one is sure to find there.  Our souls would be impoverished without these artistes, our “culture” reduced to inanity and tiresome cant.  A nightmare I hope never to endure, a history I pray we avoid.

Photos by Sherron Burns

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Uh oh.

My reading has tailed off of late, which means I have to pick up the pace if I’m going to make my quota of nine books a month.  Nine books a month times twelve months equals 108 books.  Which means Cliff succeeds at the “100 Book Challenge” and doesn’t have to hem and haw and make up a dozen different excuses why he couldn’t keep up and why he isn’t more committed to the celebration and preservation of the printed word, etc., etc., and so on.

Ah, but if only every book was as good as The Risk Pool.  I’d take the “200 Book Challenge” and make it with room to spare.

I’m a huge fan of Richard Russo’s work.  I think I found The Risk Pool on-line somewhere.  Maybe Better World Books.  I like dealing with them and their bargain bin is often pretty darn good.  Slowly but surely, I’m paring down my “wish list”; it currently takes up 4 pages of a steno notebook I keep handy.  Books I simply must own, by writers I admire without reservation.  Russo’s on that list, right near the top.  He’s a wonder.

The Risk Pool is his second book, an unbelievably good sophomore effort.  Mohawk, his debut, was excellent but The Risk Pool eclipses it.  It’s comparable in quality to Russo’s That Old Cape Magic and Empire Falls…but not quite up to the lofty standard set by The Straight Man, which I consider to be the author’s finest (and funniest) novel.  “Funny” is an operative word when one encounters a Russo tale because as well as being populated by flawed, wounded human beings and blessed by compelling plot lines, his works often provoke bleats of laughter…and that’s certainly the case with The Risk Pool.

Ned Hall is the narrator but, really, the central figure of the novel is his father, Sam.  Sam is a legend around the town of Mohawk;  he survived the Normandy landing and the Battle of Bulge, fought his way to Berlin…and returned home a changed man.  His young, blushing bride swiftly becomes disillusioned with his gambling and whoring, his determination to have a good time regardless of the consequences to those closest to him.  There’s a separation but Sam won’t hear of a divorce.  He remains a distant presence in his son’s life, at least until his mother suffers a breakdown and Ned finds himself his father’s ward, with all the complications accompanying that status.  Sam’s motley assortment of friends—drunks and local characters—give Ned a different perspective on life in Mohawk:  the perqs of winning and the cost, in human terms, of drawing the low card.

Looking for a book that is, at once, literary and a joy to read, a novel you can’t bear to part with until you’ve found out how it ends?  The Risk Pool satisfies on every count.  It is the kind of tome authors dream of writing and devoted readers pine after.  Beautiful and sad, subtle and powerful, filled with desperate, hope-filled people, who behave with the courage and foolishness their circumstances require.

Highest possible recommendation.

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I managed to read nine books in the month of January, which (barely) keeps me on pace for the “100 Book Challenge”.

The titles I tackled reveal the diversity of my tastes/interests:  Michael Palin’s latest set of diaries, Halfway to Hollywood, along with some readings on cinema (Dark Knights and Holy Fools), history, science fiction, theology, a novella by Roberto Bolano (Monsieur Pain)…

Yesterday I finished a collection of stories by one of the best English language writers on the contemporary scene, Jim Shepard.

Love & Hydrogen brings together close to two decades of Jim Shepard’s magnificent short fiction.  Here’s the citation I wrote up for Love & Hydrogen in my book journal:

“Jim Shepard is a marvel.  He and George Saunders and Ken Kalfus are the kind of writers who make you want to sweep everything off your desk and apply for a job as assistant manager at the local Dairy Queen.  Aesthetically, they make no mistakes, the scope and diversity of their work dazzles.

Love & Hydrogen displays scope and diversity all right:  in spades.  The stories transit spans of time, the subject matter encompassing everything from the final flight of the Hindenberg to ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon’.  To my mind, any number of these tales could be included in an anthology of the finest writing of the past fifty years.  I’ve read that Shepard’s research is meticulous and that is evident in historical reconstructions like the title story, ‘The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich’, ‘Krakatau’, ‘Batting Against Castro’, etc.

There’s a shiver of authenticity present in all of his fiction, an emotional honesty that defies sentiment and still manages to be heart-wrenching.  No one in Jim Shepard’s universe is blameless, everyone complicit; perhaps it’s his version of original sin.  We quickly recognize ourselves in Jim Shepard’s peerless short stories and novels and that (among numerous other things) is what makes him so great.”

* * * * * *

…and along with that reading I’ve been spending most nights of late snuggled up on the couch with Sherron, watching one or two episodes of the first season of “Mad Men” (a Christmas gift from my sons).   Intriguing and addictive.  A little bit more of Don  Draper’s past swims into focus with each episode, some of the murkiness dissipating…and a very scary picture emerging.

Next month:  the first season of “The Wire”.

After “The Wire”, my friend Gene assures me, everything else on television pales in comparison.

We shall see.

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I admit it:  I despise wannabe writers.

Now, let me be clear—when I say that, I’m talking about a certain segment of people, who meet a very specific criteria.  I’m not referring to “young writers”, “aspiring writers” or “beginning writers”; those are entirely different categories (to my mind).  Aspiring authors are humble and don’t take on airs.  They possess few, if any, professional credentials; they might have a couple of poems or short stories published or filled dozens of notebooks with their secret writings over the years, but they certainly make no claim to any kind of status.

The wannabe is far less circumspect.  These folks make all sorts of exalted statements and assign themselves great prominence in the literary community.  They’re very quick to proffer advice, usually in the form of smug, self-assured pronouncements that speak of enormous (alas, unrecognized) talent and a vast breadth of wisdom and worldly experience (ersatz).  That they have virtually no standing among accomplished, professional, full-time writers is entirely beside the point.  Why, they’ve written dozens of books (no one has read) and have been putting words on paper all their lives (no one has noticed).  They offer their services as experienced editors and are quick to thrust their work on you, in order to prove they should be taken seriously.  God help anyone who questions their undisputed brilliance.

The on-line universe has been a bonanza for wannabes.  If they have written anything—some of them, like the proverbial hundred monkeys at keyboards, are amazingly industrious, despite their utter lack of talent—they can post every word of it on their blog and to hell with the editors who never responded to their submissions or the people in that stupid writing group who said their suite of poems about losing their virginity was “childish and cliched”, “needs a lot of work” or just “ARE YOU KIDDING?!!!”.

Sometimes I’ll skim through some of the literary sites in the blogosphere and far more often than not I’m appalled by the really sub-literate tripe that people post on a public forum.  Puerile verse and poorly rendered soft porn/romance and slightly fictionalized episodes from real life.  Juvenilia.  Artlessly composed and stupefyingly dull.  Painful and embarrassing stuff, the sort of thing you might find in the locked diary of an emotionally disturbed adolescent.  Some are clearly cries for help:  look at me…aren’t I special…I feel things more deeply than most people…love me…I’m lonely…no one understands meI need affirmation

There might be a few sympathetic comments left by either kind-hearted readers…or fellow wannabes offering cautious praise before inviting them over to their site (presumably to see what real writing is all about).

I have heard it said that the explosion of on-line writing has led to an explosion of bad writing and I have to admit that this is demonstrably true.  The vast majority of what people post on the web is dreadful, godawful stuff, unfit for human consumption.  The lousy rep e-books have is well-deserved (most of the time).

One of my roles as an indie writer who publishes exclusively on the net is to work hard to demonstrate that cyberspace is not solely the domain of amateur hacks and weekend scribblers. There are some truly gifted writers out there, producing original and ground-breaking work.  Some, like myself, have chosen to put their writing on-line because of the desperate state traditional publishing is in these days.  These are experienced authors with real world credentials and undeniable literary chops.  By maintaining the highest standards, tirelessly subjecting our work to the most intense scrutiny, editing ruthlessly, eschewing conventions and formula, we wish to reward intelligent, discerning readers who are tired of the status quo and are exploring other venues, seeking alternative visions and fresh perspectives.

But it can be disheartening for readers, sifting through the thousands upon thousands of blogs and literary sites, trying to find something of value.  And that’s why a credible on-line critical community is required.  With the newspapers cutting or drastically paring down their book sections, I’m hoping more good critics will start web sites and help single out particular writers who shine amidst the dross…and dismiss those who don’t make the grade.

And it would be most helpful if amateur writers used the new technologies to better develop their skills before they foist their cringe-worthy efforts on the rest of us.  I’m talking about searching out like-minded souls, joining on-line writing groups and vetting their work with a diverse assortment of fellow writers (from around the world), getting feedback.  Sharing their work privately, rather than punishing the general public, exposing not their beautiful, unblemished souls (as they hope) but their ineptitude.   If you truly wish to be seen as someone with designs on being a serious writer, worthy of respect, give some thought to what you’re making public—believe me, you’re doing no one any favors if it’s garbage.  You’re hurting yourself…and you’re making it more difficult for your talented, hard-working colleagues to reach potential readers.

Naturally, these words of caution will not sit well with wannabes.  They’ll sniff that I’m being “elitist” and that the internet belongs to everyone.  Unfortunately, the democratization of the web means that an entrenched cult of amateurism has developed and these people guard their domains like pitbulls.  They brandish their imaginary credentials and howl in outrage should anyone refuse to defer to their alleged expertise.  Why, their writing has been read by thousands of people (who knows how many?) and they’ve published everything from young adult novels to a ten part vampire series, not to mention their “erotic” fiction and two volumes of poetry about a beloved Pekinese that recently went to doggie heaven (all of it available in e-book format, listed on a site with a thousand other books no one in their right senses would attempt to read).

I plead with new and aspiring and upcoming writers to avoid such a ridiculous mindset:  recognize your limitations, don’t publish precipitously, before your work is ready for public perusal and consumption.  Have respect for the legacy of fine writers and great literature that preceded you; after all, you initially dreamed of becoming a writer because of the joy and succor and inspiration the printed word gives you.  Your favorite authors wrote hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words before they had mastered their craft to the extent that they were, at last, worthy of publication.

Why, in God’s name, should it be any different for you?

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Well, what do you know:  an early Christmas present.

Corey Redekop is a terrific Canuck writer–his debut novel Shelf Monkey is anarchic, funny and viciously satirical.  Thus, I was mighty chuffed when someone directed my attention to a review he’s just posted of my 1997 short story collection The Reality Machine.

I’ve been searching for blurbs for the print version of So Dark the Night and Corey just handed me some on a silver platter, with little sprigs of parsley on the side.

Bless you, Corey…and don’t take too long with that followup to Shelf Monkey.

Helluva writer, that boy…

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It’s been two years now, and a lot of posts in that interval, so maybe more recent readers haven’t seen my review of the legendary Gospel of St. Nicholas.

I love the notion of these “lost gospels” that keep cropping up.  One of these days, I’m hoping they’ll uncover some indisputable ur-text that begins with the words:  “Jesus and his buddies were pissing it up one night, tossing around ideas for a really cool religion…”

Enjoy the review and from the Burns family to all of you:

Merry Christmas and all the best in 2010.

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twilightjpeg.jpgTwilight

by William Gay
(Anchor Canada; PB; $22.00)

 

“…he climbed up a chimney to a corridor above the stream and entered into a tall and bellshaped cavern. Here the walls with their softlooking convolutions, slavered over as they were with wet and bloodred mud, had an organic look to them, like the innards of some great beast. Here in the bowels of the mountain Ballard turned his light on ledges or pallets of stone where dead people lay like saints..”

Cormac McCarthy; Child of God

The comparisons are inevitable.

Two southern writers, both of whom employ lyrical, macabre prose to delineate the wicked hearts of people inhabiting places far from the lights of the city, an outer darkness where ordinary rules don’t apply.

Rather than shy away from any association with his celebrated colleague, Mr. Gay acknowledges and embraces it, to the extent that he quotes from McCarthy’s Suttree—“The rest indeed is silence”—to begin the second half of Twilight.

The similarities are there but Gay’s worldview is nowhere near as dense, unrelenting and hopeless as McCarthy’s. McCarthy is a poet, his method studied, deliberate, his word choices rich and sinuous but always scrupulously measured and metered; Gay practically gushes:

The wagon came out of the sun with its attendant din of iron rims turning on flinty shale, its worn silvergray fired orange by the malefic light flaring behind it, the driver disdaining the road for the shortcut down the steep incline, erect now and sawing the lines, riding the brake onehanded until the wheels locked and skidded, then releasing it so that wagon and team and man moved in a constantly varying cacophony of shrieks and rattles and creaks and underlying it all the perpetual skirling of steel on stone.”

-opening sentence of Twilight (italics in the original)

Gay’s Granville Sutter finds his closest fictional relative in McCarthy’s oeuvre in Lester Ballard, from the aforementioned Child of God. Both kill without remorse and don’t shy away from the bloody part of the business. There is much to fear from a man who is capable of terrible deeds, acting without flinching, proceeding without so much as a backward glance. Such a man is to be avoided and you certainly wouldn’t want one as an enemy…

Corrie and Kenneth Tyler finds themselves in Sutter’s murderous sights owing to a combination of bad judgement, a desire for vengeance and, it must be said, a certain amount of plain, old fashioned greed. They stumble across the grisly postmortem shenanigans of the town’s resident undertaker, Fenton Breece. Breece likes to ah, tamper with the cadavers he has access to in his professional capacity. Corrie is determined to make the mortician pay for interfering with her father’s body and inflicting all manner of macabre indignities on his helpless clients.

The first twenty or thirty pages of Twilight make for tough sledding as the evil that Breece is enacting is revealed to the reader. Corrie convinces her reluctant brother to help her extort money from Breece and it’s at that point that Sutter is called in, charged with the job of putting an end to the blackmail.

The second section of the book is a protracted chase scene. There’s too much foreshadowing of Sutter’s eventual fate and I never quite figured out his odd fixation with Kenneth Tyler. The roots of the connection remain undisclosed and, to my mind, quite unfathomable.

Twilight is a dark book, not only in terms of the disturbing imagery but also in its depiction of the backwoods people, the bleak secrets they harbour, the corruption that engenders. They are a hard and mean bunch, seasoned by grim fortune, embittered rather than ennobled by suffering and privation. Young Kenneth Tyler has no resources to fall back on when he runs afoul of Sutter, no assistance or relief forthcoming from the hostile and suspicious community he was born and raised into.

The settings are well-elaborated, the world Gay paints vivid and multi-layered. Here’s Tyler in the wilderness, finding himself shadowed bygayjpeg.jpg wild dogs. He makes camp and cooks a rabbit he has killed:

He ate and tossed the bones beyond the circle of firelight where they were contested with snarls and he could see their green eyes moving about like paired fireflies. When the meat was gone and he’d lain down to sleep with his rifle for bunkmate he could see a circle of their eyes drawn about the fire and in his mind he could see them stretched out, chins on paws, warily studying the fire and this strange god they’d adopted. As if they’d wearied of this wild life of freedom and hoped he could give them back what they’d lost of civilization.”

Mr. Gay tells a tall tale but at least he tells it well. The territory is remote, barren, depopulated, pocked with sinkholes, dotted with abandoned factory towns, overgrown graveyards, dissolving machinery. Ghosts of the past loom up everywhere.

Few acquit themselves well in Twilight and there’s no deliverance here, redemption in this case amounting to survival and little more. It’s a primal, ferocious novel, a thriller and then some.

It makes no apologies for itself, eschews pretension and therefore earns our respect.

Note: At no point during the course of this critique did its author once use the term “Southern Gothic”

 

 

coverjpeg.jpgMarco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu

by Laurence Bergreen
(Knopf Canada; HC: $36.95)

Marco Polo, the dauntless explorer. World traveler and raconteur. Shameless liar and self-promoter. Confidante of Kublai Khan. “Il Milione” and his bottomless store of fanciful tales. Respected merchant of Venice. Prisoner of war…

Held under house arrest by the Genoese after a calamitous naval battle, Marco, in his mid-forties but already packing the experiences of ten lifetimes under his belt, entertains his captors and fellow prisoners with stories of his adventures in the realm of the Mongols. Another prisoner, Rustichello, proposes they collaborate on a written account of his rambles and the two of them set to work. Rustichello is more partial to Arthurian romances, it’s true, but this Polo fellow tells a fine tale and, besides, it’s something to do to while away the long hours of captivity. Sometimes their imaginations get the best of them; Rustichello, in particular, is never one to let mere facts ruin a good story.

The embellishments they concoct diminish a great work, testifying against its veracity as an historical document. Sometimes, not content to be a mere observer, Marco puts himself front and center, undeservedly claiming credit, exaggerating his importance. Before we get too far into his Travels, his father and uncle (arguably greater explorers than their kinsman), disappear from its pages, reappearing only sporadically. Brazen egotism, a reluctance to share the spotlight…or an editorial decision, axing them to streamline the plot?

Mr. Bergreen’s conversant and agreeable biography of the Venetian explorer makes for a good introduction to the man and the era he lived in. I had no idea there were so many different versions of Travels extant, miscopied and incomplete, fragmentary or expurgated, some renditions twice as long as the others. There is no definitive text. Which is closest to the original? Historians finding it difficult resisting the temptation to fill in the gaps with speculation, extrapolations. These might amount to learned guesses…or, on the flip side, unproveable notions (Marco may have become addicted to opium during a lengthy sojourn in Afghanistan). Without hard evidence they contribute little to the historical record, suppositions based on the slenderest evidence, a tidbit of malign gossip, deserving of a footnote, nothing more.

Mr. Bergreen does an admirable job of setting the scene for us—his descriptions of 13th century Venice are convincing. He recreates the Polos’ arduous expeditions with clarity and we get a keen appreciation for the ordeals they endured throughout their three year trek to the court of Kublai Khan.

Mr. Bergreen’s biography makes it clear that young Marco experiences quite an extraordinary transformation in the course of his journey through the Near East and Asia. When he first sets out he is full of loathing for the disparate cultures he encounters, their perverse sexual practices and savage, pagan beliefs. But gradually his haughty Catholic sensibilities are won over by the courage and toughness of the Mongol people. Whereas he has been led to believe they are a savage and uncivilized race, he recognizes a different reality and has a complete change of heart. He becomes their biggest fan.

khanjpeg.jpgWhen they finally reach the great Khan’s capital, the Polos make a good impression on their host—to the extent that he enlists them as part of his massive civil service.

The Great Lord’s court is a melting pot of cultures and he is not averse to using intelligent and trustworthy agents of all nationalities to fulfill his schemes and designs. Marco’s admiration for the Khan is profound: here is a canny ruler who displays ruthlessness and guile, a shrewd intelligence and, as a result, has achieved the highest seat in the world. Surely he must be the greatest of all men, wise and just in his way.

But Marco’s admiration for the aging Khan is severely tested by the evidence he sees of the ferocity of the Khan’s reprisals. Troops loyal to the sovereign lay waste to great swathes of land, killing or uprooting many people. Any uprisings or displays of disloyalty are severely punished…as Marco discovers when his duties take him through present-day Burma and Vietnam. The Mongols wage total war; frequently none are spared.

After seventeen years of devoted service to the Khan, the Polos approach their master and patron, expressing a desire to return to their homeland. He is not immediately receptive. There have been embarrassing military setbacks in Japan and, most recently, Java. The Mongols’ air of invincibility has been shattered. The Khan has lost face and feels that the foreigners in his court enhance his prestige.

But a pretext presents itself and the Khan reluctantly allows them to accompany a princess to the lands of an important ally. From there, they will have royal fiat to go where they wish within his empire.

They make it back to Venice but find that during their extended absence, relatives have presumed them dead and divvied up their possessions. They manage to settle their affairs and, thanks to the riches they’ve brought with them from the East, are able to establish themselves among the city’s gentry.

But Marco finds the sedentary life of a merchant rather boring after sharing a ger (tent) with the fierce and noble Mongols, the boldest and finest people on earth. He’s middle-aged when he’s captured after the Battle of Curzola and incarcerated at the Palazzo di San Giorgio with Rustichella.

After his release he returns to Venice, where he does well for himself. Despite his affluence and excellent circumstances, Marco earns a reputation for being difficult, litigious. He marries and sires three daughters but one gets the impression that for Marco, like Ulysses in the Tennyson poem, his friends and family “know him not”. His time in the East changed him irrevocably, set him apart from his fellow men. He is a stranger to them; he has seen things with his own eyes they cannot conceive of.

At the end he is bedridden, wasting away, a sad fate for such a vigorous and ambitious man. He dies during his 70th year, at home, likely the last place his restless soul wished to be.

coleridgejpeg.jpgHis Travels grew in fame and stature, his name acquiring the trappings of legend. Columbus read and re-read his copy of the world’s most famous travelogue. Coleridge recognized the mythic power of the stories…

After all, that’s what drew so many people to his Genoese prison: to hear wild and thrilling and bawdy yarns of exotic, far-off lands; the flora and fauna, the untamed wilderness, but, mostly, to learn of the people who lived there, their bizarre, heathen practices:

One Mongol custom in particular astounded Marco: the marriage of dead children…When there are two men, the one who has a dead male child inquires for another man who may have had a female child suited to him, and she also may be dead before she is married; these two parents make a marriage of the two dead together. They give the dead girl to the dead boy for wife, and they have documents made about it in corroboration of the dowry and marriage’…”

The two families behaved “as if the bride and groom walked among them, erasing the boundary between life and death. Afterward, ‘the parents and kinsmen of the dead count themselves as kindred and keep up their relation…as if their dead children were alive’.”

Whether secondhand or first person, real or imagined, factual or fabricated, the Travels amounted to grand entertainment to people whose perspectives were narrow and blunted. After all, foreign excursions were perilous in those times, involving no small amount of danger. Conditions on sea and land were harsh, danger ever present, travelers constantly set upon by marauders. Most never ventured far from the safety of their home villages and cities. They made for an eager but skeptical audience, their imaginations fired by accounts of worlds they would never see, while their practical mindsets insisted none of it could be real.

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