It was time to revisit Donald Antrim, author of our 2016 Book of the Year Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. The venue, a collection of seven short stories, in a volume called The Emerald Light in the Air. The stories are replete with characters of quirky action, thought and/or past, but only one of the stories captures the magic of Mr. Robinson, An Actor Prepares. Please read it and get turned on to Donald Antrim…
The cover of Alison Moore’s book The Lighthouse says “Longlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2012.” Astonishing. The book stinks, and we are not referring to book’s repeated use of olfactory imagery. The main character, Futh, who may/must be retarded to some extent, could really use a spell of no luck at all. One awkward, bad luck scene after the next. In real life, rather than reach 40, he would have hung himself or shot up his high school. The profile of a satisfied reader of this book would be one who enjoys a damp, grey day at the shore. One where a seagull dropping lands on their sandwich just as they take a bite. A mildly engaging, but wholly unsatisfying read. Pass.
Magical Realism. It can have little magic. Exhibit A: Tom Drury’s The Driftless Area. The dreary tale of a Midwestern simpleton, Pierre Hunter. Not a bad guy. Tries to do the right thing, but he’s an idiot.
The reader gets the impression that the author thought long and hard on the characters’ full names, names of towns (which Saint Ivo is your town named after???) and the name of the bar that Pierre works at. Those bland details may move someone disconnected from reality, e.g., an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, but it falls flat for someone not currently on drugs. Even if these clever details resonate, they do little for the story.
If you are looking for another strike, there is some pretention here too. The publisher includes Questions for Discussion on the final 3-pages of the book. While that ink is always appreciated, the publisher frames the questions as if this book is an acknowledged seminal work. Linking the it to the Coen Brother, Jonathan Franzen, Charlie Chaplin, Hemingway, Odysseus…Thelma & Louise for Chistsakes!!! Out of context, but question 4 is How do we begin to realize we are in a fabulous tale… Tom Drury is an acclaimed writer, so he isn’t written off yet.
Absurdistan is the story of Misha Boisovich Vainberg, a.k.a., Snack Daddy, the son of the 1.238th richest man in Russia, his Khui (pecker) and his odyssey to reclaim his cuero, Rouenna, in the Bronx. The problem is, that although Misha is an avowed Amero-phile with a degree in Multi-Cultural Studies from the Midwest’s Accidental College, the gangster-like activities of Beloved Papa have convinced the wise generals of the INS to bar Misha’s reentry into the United States. But now that rival gangsters have tossed a landmine into beloved Papa’s SUV on St. Petersburg’s Palace Bridge, thereby making Misha an only child orphan, the time to get out of Russia is now. Dubious official connections set his journey in motion by directing him to the former Caspian soviet of Absurdistan in pursuit of a forged Belgian passport.
Throwing off its Russian yoke, arrival in Absurdistan allows the book’s comic absurdities to level up. Ridiculous ethnic tensions, natural resource-swindling multinational corporations and a scripted civil war starved for CNN’s attention provide an entertaining backdrop for Misha’s escape. Turns out that Beloved Papa is a legend in Absurdistan for selling an 800-kilogram screw to Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, and is the longtime benefactor of Absurdistan’s Mountain Jews. Consequently, Misha is appointed Commissar of Multicultural Affairs and asked to speak to Israel about getting some better news coverage and post-war development funds. Though naturally indolent, e.g., his hero is Goncherov’s Oblomov, Misha springs into action by drafting a grant proposal for the Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies. A 5-page crescendo of the absurd.
Does Misha make it to NYC? Who cares, the book is a roll. Gary Shteyngart really channels John Kennedy Toole in this one. It’s a slow starter, but gets real funny about a third of the way through.