In her new novel, Lucky Boy (472 pages, Putnam), Shanthi Sekaran plunges readers into the drastically different yet irrevocably intertwined lives of two women, and in doing so explores facets of motherhood, immigration, and the American experience. Solimar Castro Valdez is eighteen when she leaves the impoverished cornfields of Santa Clara Popocalco in Oaxaca for “the promise of forward motion” in California. Her journey north is nightmarish; she is nearly forced into drug smuggling, she survives a rape, witnesses the horrific death of a boy, and for days rides in the bed of a truck, gagging on the stench of onions. In the middle of this tribulation, she falls for another traveller, a young man named Checo, who rides with her through Mexico atop the infamous train nicknamed La Bestia. As they near the U.S. border, they are separated, but the sense of determination Checo instills in Soli remains with her for the rest of the story. By her own volition and ingenuity, Soli finds her cousin’s house in Berkeley. By the time she arrives, her hair shorn, Soli is pregnant. Despite the journey, and despite the uncertainty of what her life will be like in America as an undocumented woman—and a mother—she remains eager to start her new life.
Sekaran seamlessly alternates between Soli’s story and that of Kavya Reddy’s. Kavya lives with her husband, Rishi, in a bungalow in Berkeley. The children of Indian immigrants, Kavya, who is in her 30s, is the chef at a Cal sorority house, and Rishi is a “ventilation engineer” at a Silicon Valley tech company. They bike to work, spend lazy Sunday mornings naked in bed, and take trips to the farmer’s market. Kavya’s privileged day-to-day existence initially stands in stark contrast with Soli’s. “Her grown-up life was fat with pleasure, but after three years, then four and five, the pleasure grew thin. She’d come to Berkeley to find herself, but found that her self was not enough. She wanted a self of her self,” Sekaran writes. “She wanted a child.”
MB Caschetta’s recent story collection, Pretend I’m Your Friend (Engine Books; 200 pages), explores what one of its characters calls “terrible love.” In eleven entwined stories, Caschetta examines confusing and often painful friendships, romances, and familial bonds: a set of parents who share a sexual desire for their kids’ babysitter, a dying mother who wishes cancer on her daughters instead of herself, a clairvoyant whose visions the end of her marriage. Just when you think you have wrapped your head around the root of a character’s issues, Caschetta will offer a different perspective in a later story. One problem bleeds into several others. A name mentioned in passing in one tale will attain its emotional weight in a much later piece.
The heart of the collection is the three stories in which Caschetta focuses on the rats’ nest of pain that is the Wojak family. In “Hands of God,” we zoom in on one moment of Alice-James (A.J.) Wojak’s life, as she takes a trip to Florence with her high school friend Helena Frankel, “the most beautiful girl in all of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, place of their birth, and exactly nowhere.” It is 1973, and the girls have saved up for two years for the trip. Two days before their departure, Helena discovers her boyfriend having a threesome with another couple.
Artist Ricardo Cavolo and writer Scott McClanahan have created an intimate portrait of one of their heroes—cult-famous indie musician Daniel Johnston—in their recent graphic novel, which serves as “an affectionate thanks and a hug for Daniel.” The Incantations of Daniel Johnston (101 pages; Two Dollar Radio) is more than a look at Johnston’s picaresque life; it is also a critique on fandom and an investigation of the ways an audience interacts with art and mental illness. While Cavolo and McClanahan refuse to skip over the tragic aspects of Johnston’s mental health, or skirt around the troubling things the self-proclaimed “curse upon the land” has done, they also lovingly dream up different paths Johnston’s life could have taken. There is a wonderful yet occasionally unsettling strangeness that permeates this book. It stems from acknowledging “the devils inside” all of us, as depicted in Cavolo’s colorful illustrations and in the dark humor in McClanahan’s language.
To combat the mythologizing of Daniel Johnston as an artist, Cavolo and McClanahan continuously remind us he is human. At the beginning, Cavolo draws Daniel on an embryonic level, still inside his mother’s womb. McClanahan writes, “Everyone was someone’s child once. Remember.” This sets the tone for the rest of the book. As Cavolo and McClanahan bask in the bizarreness of Johnston’s story, they also instruct us to acknowledge he is real. We are transported to Johnston’s childhood bedroom, where he grew up in a religious household in West Virginia. Within the room, Cavolo illustrates the drawings Johnston is known for: frogs, eyeballs, skulls, and superheroes. McClanahan writes, “There is nothing more amazing than the bedrooms of our childhood or the room we are sitting in right now.” These details of Daniel’s youth are given as much weight as the darker incidences that occurred later on in his life once drugs, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder afflicted his life.
Marcy Dermansky’s newest novel, The Red Car (206 pages, Liveright/Norton), moves much like the car it features: fast and unpredictable. It covers three stages and sixteen years of narrator Leah Kaplan’s life, beginning with her as a college freshman, then leading to her bumbling entry into adulthood, and finishing with her early thirties, when she’s a writer living in Queens with a possessive husband whom she does not love. Through it all Leah is a mess of contradictions; sexually open though terrified of affection, in earnest pursuit of her dreams but displaying a tendency for self-sabotage, “floating in unexplainable melancholy” yet always able to find humor in the bleakest situation. Leah is a puzzle that can’t be pieced together.
The red car of the title arrives when Leah, now an aspiring writer just out of college, works an administrative assistant job in San Francisco. She despises the mundaneness of the office, and her boss, Judy, only encourages her loathing, taking her out for long, boozy lunches and allowing her to write stories during work. She listens to Leah about her roommate woes and unromantic hookups with a boyfriend who isn’t really her boyfriend. Judy tells Leah she will do incredible things, and advises her not to marry because it would only confine her; she even threatens to fire Leah if she doesn’t apply to grad schools. Perhaps it is this ambition that Judy instills in her that causes Leah to resent her boss’s fancy new car as soon as she sees it. The car immediately becomes a symbol of the common—“Of fifteen more years at the office. A life sentence.”—but Leah also detects something more. “I feel like something sinister has happened in this car … Or could happen. I don’t know. Something bad,” she tells Judy. Judy insists the car is perfection, a “dream come true.”
Sjon’s latest novel, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Books, 145 pages), set in Reykjavik in 1918, is the story of sixteen-year-old Máni Steinn (a.k.a. Moonstone). The boy’s guardian is “the old lady”—his grandmother’s sister who took him in after his mother died when he was just six. They live with “the landlord,” a man she raised as a nanny and who lets them stay in his garret space rent-free. To the concern of the old lady, Máni is “such a loner that rather than go out and play with his classmates he preferred to hang out at home, smoking cigarettes with her.” Besides smoking in the attic, he splits his time between trips to the cinema and prostituting himself.
Early on in the novel, we witness the eruption of Katla, a large Icelandic volcano. The ash coats Reykjavik’s skies, wrapping the city in a hazy cloud that’s reflective of the island country’s seclusion from the rest of the world, as well as Máni’s isolation. While Sjon does not dwell on the pain of being gay in a place where queerness may be unfathomable, the moments that we do get access to Máni’s inner torment cut deep. Much of the boy’s distress is shared through what he dreams; graphic and horrific nightmares that pull from his real-life troubles. He escapes his situation by going to the cinema. He watches every movie imported into Iceland, and each film as often as it is screened. “And now the boy lives in the movies. When not spooling them into himself through his eyes, he is replaying them in his mind.” The boy’s cinephile-like view of life is reflected in the way Sjon tells Máni’s story, often focusing on situations frame-by-frame, and cutting abruptly to other scenes.
Máni pays for all these movies by servicing “gentlemen,” some of whom are foreign (like the Danish sailors docking in the port or the wealthy tourists visiting from Copenhagen) and some of who are prominent townspeople, local men living in the closet. One of them is the scholar, Dr. Thordeal, who refers to himself as the Atlas of the Icelandic literary world. He exists as a hermit, hiding in his basement with his books. The boy sometimes performs sexual favors for this “genial hunchback” for two kronur. One of the many tragic elements of Máni’s situation is that discrete prostitution is the only outlet for him to express some semblance of queer love. A local poet, whom Máni does not charge for his services, whispers to him, “Had we but another world and time/ Our passionate embraces were no crime.”
In her novel Angel of Oblivion (289 page; Archipelago Books), Maja Haderlap depicts a dilapidated, Slovenian-speaking valley in Austria following World War II. During the war, the Nazis identified this area in the south of the country as one riddled with partisans. Many were hunted down and killed, while others were taken away to the camps. (Among the survivors, it is debatable which fate was worse.) Now it’s the 1960s, and fragmented families people the valley, farmers who repeat the stories of their neighbors’ and kins’ annihilations like chants. Haderlap’s story focuses on one particular group of survivors, the Zdravkos, a family preoccupied by food and death, just like everybody else in the valley.
Pulling from her own family history, and narrating the story through the Zdravkos’ daughter, Haderlap introduces each member of the clan through his or her relation to food. When we meet Father, he is working with the cattle. “You can read Father’s moods from the cowpat’s flight. If he tosses the manure in a high arc to the back of the heap, he’s feeling confident. If he flings the cowpats hard against the front of the manure pile, he’s irate.” Father’s past colors the entire novel, never allowing us to forget his nightmare of hiding from the Nazis, alone in the mountains as a boy of 12. Thus his irate moods can burn toward the suicidal. One of the novel’s most striking scenes happens early on when Father locks himself in the apiary with his gun. We sympathize with his pain, and continue to do so afterward, even as he later threatens the rest of the family with the same gun.