God Is in the Gutter: Ben Ehrenreich’s ‘Ether’

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Ben Ehrenreich’s new novel, Ether (City Lights; 164 pages), follows an insomniac author living in a crumbling dystopia. He’s writing a novel about The Stranger, a man in a crusty white suit, an earthly manifestation of God. The premise of the novel-in-progress within Ether is that The Stranger has fallen to Earth and endeavors to return to heaven, intending to rectify some mistake for which his similarly fallen angels will not forgive him. Ehrenreich’s “broken hero” is consummately obstructed from his return by both misfortune and—here is the meat of it—kindnesses. By the end of the book, The Stranger has […]

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A Family Besieged: Justin Torres’ ‘We the Animals’

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Justin Torres’ first novel, We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 144 pages), carries all the balm and hazard of strong waves at high tide. Told through the eyes of the youngest of three brothers, the novel evokes the experience of youth and the struggles of a poor family from Brooklyn living in upstate New York. Through his enveloping and fast-paced prose, Torres bestows his story with a rare generosity and honesty, portraying the family’s jagged love – with all its cruelty, beauty, tenderness, and loyalty – and chronicling the events leading to the family’s calamitous fragmentation. Torres, who lives in […]

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An Emphatic Vision That Sees Beyond the Stars: Louis B. Jones’ ‘Radiance’

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“This was a city of the world, a profound city, an endless city,” reflects Mark Perdue, the narrator and protagonist of Louis B. Jones’ latest novel, Radiance (Counterpoint; 240 pages), as he contemplates the unfamiliar surroundings of Los Angeles. The departure from Jones’ home turf of Terra Linda and Berkeley — ground zero for his previous novel, Particles and Luck, also featuring Perdue, and his alarmingly excellent first novel, Ordinary Money — is salutary, and disturbing, for the author and his invented worlds. In the new book, Perdue, a physics prof at UC Berkeley with a fading career that may be […]

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It All Comes Down to a Walk in the Park: Sergio Chejfec’s ‘My Two Worlds’

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My faith in reading — shattered by texting, an increasingly illiterate America, and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills — has been restored by a book about a walk in the park. Sergio Chejfec‘s My Two Worlds (Open Letter Books; 120 pages), translated by Margaret B. Carson, concerns itself with one walk in one park: a green expanse in the unnamed Brazilian town where Chefjec, a visiting Argentine academic, is attending a literary festival where he imagines himself looking “like a fugitive trying to blend in.” Consulting a map, seeing that green spot, he feels his heart race: “For me […]

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Between Possibilities: Stephen Dunn’s ‘Here and Now’

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Whenever a poet as preeminent as Stephen Dunn releases a new corpus of material, the potential for failure can’t help but manifest itself. Some might fear that the book, having come from an author who has already attained a pinnacle of critical achievement (Dunn won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for Different Hours), will turn out to be a footnote compared to the works that preceded it. Still others might stifle an otherwise solid book with narrow expectations or preconceptions. Yet Dunn’s most recent publication, Here and Now (Norton; 112 pages), is anything but stillborn, an object all its own—rather […]

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A Wandering Artist: Philip L. Fradkin’s ‘Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife’

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I first heard about Everett Ruess, a 20-year-old wander and fledging artist who disappeared in southern Utah 75 years ago, when I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during the ‘80s. His story – a longstanding mystery — was one you eventually got to know if you spent anytime roaming around the backcountry of the high desert. Many years later, on April 30, 2009, the New York Times published an article titled “A Mystery of the West Is Solved.” The article explained that researchers at the University of Colorado, using DNA analysis, claimed to have identified human remains found in […]

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A Meanness in This World: Donald Ray Pollock’s ‘The Devil All the Time’

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The major components of Donald Ray Pollock’s disquieting page-turner of a first novel, The Devil All the Time (Doubleday; 261 pages), are by themselves nothing special. There’s the novel’s crime fiction aspect: depraved criminals and less-than-innocent heroes on a bloody collision course. And the novel’s pivotal philosophical concern, one straight out of gothic fiction (as found in Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor): what does it mean to live in a godless universe full of incomprehension? Or in a world in which God seemingly doesn’t give a damn about what goes on down here? But Pollock, the critically-acclaimed author of the […]

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Looking for Home: Miroslav Penkov’s ‘East of the West: A Country in Stories’

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The title of Miroslav Penkov’s debut story collection, East of the West: A Country in Stories (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 240 pages) is ironic, or maybe wistful —for Penkov’s characters, there is never “a” country. They are Bulgarian immigrants in America, Bulgarian American immigrants returning to Bulgaria, Bulgarians in a village straddling the Serbian border, Muslims in Bulgaria. In 2008, Salman Rushdie selected “Buying Lenin,” the third story in the collection, for his edition  of Best American Short Stories. The atmosphere in East might remind you of Rushdie, but this isn’t magical realism. There’s nothing truly fantastic in Penkov’s work […]

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A River of Words to Capture the Nastiness of War: ‘The Land at the End of the World’

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If you like your narrators drunk, shell-shocked, adrift, and stricken with logorrhea, please read on. Following in the tradition of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World (Norton; 224 pages) is a book of anguished testimony. (Open Letter publisher Chad Post accurately grouped the author with Thomas Bernhard and Louis-Ferdinand Celine as an “author of complaint.”) Based on Lobo Antunes’s experiences as a medic in the Portuguese military, which, from 1961 to 1974, engaged in a failed pacification campaign in its African colonies, The Land […]

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A Sprawling if Not So Sunny State: ‘New California Writing 2011’

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“California,” publisher and author Malcolm Margolin writes in his introduction to the anthology New California Writing 2011 (Heyday, 304 pages), “is a construct of the human imagination.” California encompasses no “definable ecological or cultural area;” we are self-defining, he suggests. If we managed to evade utter disintegration for most of our history, it was thanks to heaps of luck – bountiful natural resources, good climate, driven people. Unfortunately, around mid century it would seem our luck began to dry up. Writing in 2010-2011, the forty-four featured authors in this anthology (edited by Gayle Wattawa) greet us from the pits. The […]

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Food and Work, Love and Death: Daniel Orozco’s ‘Orientation and Other Stories’

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Back in the mid-‘90s, Story (the late and lamented journal dedicated to short fiction) published an arresting work by Daniel Orozco titled “The Bridge.” A young man joins the veteran crew responsible for maintaining the Golden Gate Bridge. The older guys, all of whom go by nicknames, decide to call the new guy Baby. As Orozco gracefully settles us into this unfamiliar world of risky if unglamorous work, something happens to Baby: “He spots the trouble right away, at the east end, just over his head – a section of hose hung up between the power line and the scaffold […]

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Stories of Sex and Intrigue: Robert Gottlieb’s ‘Lives and Letters’

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While a good number of undying cultural giants (Harry Houdini, Judy Garland, Charles Dickens) receive coverage in Lives and Letters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 426 pages), Robert Gottlieb’s collection of biographical profiles largely takes up the lives of once household names and worldwide phenomena who, for one reason or another, failed to achieve lasting impact beyond their generation. Douglas Fairbanks, Minou Drouet, anyone? Indeed, many generations have passed since the heyday of most of Gottlieb’s subjects (the median cultural peak is somewhere around 1930, with Princess Diana and Scott Peterson being the only real “household names” of the 21st century). […]

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