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Austin Chronicle The Poetry of Pain

AUGUST 9, 1999: 

The Fires by René Steinke (William Morrow & Co.), $23 hard

What fills the holes dug by lies; what breeds in dank silence; what festers in the crammed and locked closets of the heart: This is the substance of Friendswood native René Steinke's painful, lyrical first novel, The Fires.

"It is less dangerous to burn things than to save them," Steinke's narrator tells us on the very first page. Ella is a young woman languishing in a small Indiana town outside Chicago. She was badly disfigured by a childhood fire -- a deformity confined to her torso and arms, where it can be hidden. But perversely, obsessively, Ella is drawn to near-revelations of her scars in one-night stands. Can she fool another drunken, lustful stranger in the dark? She always can.

To relieve the anxiety of silence and repression, Ella is also drawn to arson. "What fire shines on, it colors; what it cooks is easier to swallow," she says. "An arsonist comes from a family of savers, with full attics and basements, crowded rooms where nothing is ever lost, and the only way to lose something is to burn it."

Ella's family attic is plenty crowded. For example, Aunt Emma was repeatedly put away for taking a furious hoe to glass storefronts. Why? "'Because glass will shatter. Air won't.' I knew what she meant, that stillness can choke you. She wheeled herself a little closer to me. Her eyes fixed on me. 'I couldn't take that quiet.'"

The list of dark secrets that struggle for voice here -- suicide, Klan membership, scars, pyromania, promiscuity -- becomes oppressively long after a while: Oh no, not another long-ago rape! But while the bleakness is unrelenting, Steinke's prose never loses its astonishing grace. Her ear for the music of grief is unfailing (and in fact she is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize). When Ella finds her grandfather dead, a suicide, she writes, "Behind me, I heard something small fall on the bureau and my mother softly weeping. I wanted to console her, to weep myself, but instead counted the seconds, my heart that clock, impatient and achingly brass." When she learns of the death of another beloved relative: "'She's dead,' I said. A silver candy wrapper cartwheeled over cracks in the sidewalk, the green gate perkily blinked in the windows of a parked car. Everything was maddeningly unmoved, even glossed with a faint cheer, shapes curved into smiles."

Given the dark sexual undercurrents of this novel, as well as its heroine's struggle to resist repression and lies, it may be no surprise that Madonna has already picked up The Fires' movie rights. But the novel's greatest strength won't be caught on film; it's in Steinke's exquisite, loving rendering of the poetry of pain. --Katherine Catmull


Lorca : A Dream of Life by Leslie Stainton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), $35 hard

Federico Garcia Lorca, in the eyes of the world, has become this century's martyr for a country that knows a thing or two about the Catholic letting of blood. Shot with a rifle between his buttocks at point-blank range for any of a number of reasons -- his homosexuality, his refusal to quiet in the face of Spanish fascism -- the once-raucous poet has since become a major point of contention and debate in contemporary Spain. It was with a curious and delighted fascination, in fact, that two years ago I observed a tiny gift shop in the cathedral of Granada -- the very building that houses the remains of Ferdinand and Isabella -- and its display of Jesus Christ postcards lined right up against cards adorned with Garcia Lorca's poignant face. "Martyrs Forever," the text read.

Leslie Stainton's Lorca: A Dream of Life faces the challenge of depicting a legend that already has been painted so many times with most urgent colors. Armed with 14 years of research, though, Stainton succeeds in developing a fully comprehensive study of the life, work, and world inhabited by the poet. Like a smiling gossip, she recalls the bizarre episodes of Garcia Lorca's life, from his repeated stagings of his own death to his participation in flatulence competitions as a young student. She also treats the most fascinating aspects of the poet's life -- his interaction with such geniuses as Dali and Falla -- with a stern insight and fairness that presents Garcia Lorca's sadness and strangeness without pushing their inherent melodrama: "Unlike Lorca, who yearned for Dali's physical presence, the artist was content with a mostly cerebral friendship. He needed Lorca imaginatively, not physically."

Stainton's Garcia Lorca will inevitably be compared to the myriad versions of the poet that have been produced already, perhaps most rigorously to Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life by Ian Gibson and the Andy Garcia film The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca. While both other studies of the poet are compelling and well-made, Stainton offers a more encyclopedic text that is remarkably free of the stains of personal interpretation and conjecture. Where Gibson posits extensively on the sexual implications of Garcia Lorca's obsession with Saint Sebastian, for instance, Stainton does well enough to describe simply the poet's and Dali's mutual fascination with the figure and their use of it in their personal relationship: "Through the image of Sebastian the two made shy allusions to the intense emotional -- and conceivably physical -- nature of their involvement. Dali spoke bluntly of the saint's 'unwounded ass.'"

Using Catholic figures as representations of sexuality, of course, will get you in trouble. Garcia Lorca knew this and developed a great irony and beauty in becoming a figure structured on Catholic models of suffering and redemption. Stainton's examination of the poet's life, or dream of life, which may be quite the same thing anyway, excels by charting both the breathing and the bleeding of Spain's most holy artist. --David Garza


Latino Heretics edited by Tony Diaz (FC2), $12.95 paper

Inspired by the work of the late Omar Castañeda (Naranjo the Muse) Tony Diaz has edited an anthology entitled Latino Heretics, which features 11 Latino writers who "upset and disturb the gentleman's agreement upon which some of the current politics of Latino identity are precariously based. These works also attain a new level of craft, a high style of writing to topple the current politics of aesthetics that threaten to oppress all writers."

Setting the book at the top of a self-constructed hierarchy (high style vs. low) is in itself an oppressive act, it seems. And just what is the "gentleman's agreement" Diaz claims Latino writers and thinkers have entered into? What is this alleged pan-Latino identity that Latino Heretics claims to mess with? Don't look for an answer from Diaz, whose broadly constructed introduction does little to bring a sense of cohesion to the book. In fact, when given the opportunity to define the word "heretic" in the book's title, he glibly offers: "This book, from the first page to the last page, is my first word in the definition." In other words, here are some sticks, bubble gum, and a cup of motor oil. Go off, dear reader, and figure it out for yourself. That would be easy enough to do, if one got the sense that all the contributors were working toward the same idea.

Like many anthologies, this collection is uneven, more so in this case, given the wide range of writers, approaches, and the so-called radical ideas. Pieces by Luis Alfaro ("Deseo As Memoria"), Tatiana de la Tierra ("a latina lesbian activist's survival guide," "Jail Time for Beginners"), and Judith Ortiz Cofer ("Gravity") offer the most satisfying reads of the book. Alfaro's short piece, which ends with the condemnation of a gay friend's mother, is painful, shocking, and brave. (Is this the "agreement" Diaz alludes to, that we Latinos don't talk bad about mothers?) De la Tierra's pieces work because they are buoyed by her sense of humor: "regardless of how grand your scheme is ... you'll end up waiting in line at Kinko's ... to photocopy your earth-shaking documents. brace yourself -- they could be out of that 'solar yellow' paper you envisioned."

Latino Heretics fails to deliver its heady though loosely defined promises. The writing may be "high" and "stylish" but unfortunately, much of it is also forgettable. --Belinda Acosta


An Equal Music by Vikram Seth (Viking), $25 hard

Without disclosing too much of the plot, An Equal Music is Vikram Seth's novel of a string-quartet player and his passions.

Seth, author of the wildly popular A Suitable Boy, as well as several books of poetry, and even a novel in verse, has now created the English, violin-toting Michael Holme as his protagonist. Julia McNicholl is the Viennese woman he fell desperately in love with 10 years prior, only, of course, to drive her away and regret it forever.

By looking at the names, and learning the settings -- London, Vienna, and Venice, with soundtracks, respectively, of Bach, Schubert, and Vivaldi -- it's clear what sort of novel this is: romantic, sad, and delicious.

The prose depicts the world through a soft filter, with subtle alliterations, unexpected words like "cerebration," the meanings of which can be gleaned from context, and sonorous images that have no sharp edges. Overall, the tearful reader is left with one idyllicly wishful thought from An Equal Music: "If only I were a sad violin player in clammy London, riding red double-decker buses, my life might be so tragically romantic, too."

Lately, writers seem to have a penchant for showing the lonely how they really are -- sort of pathetic, and eating cereal all of the time. Michael Holme is more of a cultured, pleasant lonely -- he at least keeps up appearances by eating croissants, though he buys them in bulk, and takes just one out of the freezer each day. Still, even the sadness is musical: "Panes of ice, frosted and clear: the wind pushed them onto the southern shore. They slide upon each other, give gently and creak clean. Seven layers thick, half-beached, they lie as clear as glass and creak and shift as the water moves with the wind."

Stylistically, Seth's writing is reminiscent of Alan Lightman's fantastical Einstein's Dreams, but this may be the present-tense tone of the writing and the Austrian setting as well as the way the details stage slow emotion: Everything is a realization. "Let me report to you from my world. The views have widened as the world's grown bare. Someone has sprinkled orange lentils on the ground beneath the sycamore. ... Cold fat black crows stand still, uncawing, watchful."

Admittedly, bits of it are overdone. "What if we were not making love together, we whose blood beats in one pulse?" sounds a little like highbrow soft-porn for those with a little culture. The dialogue is slightly cutesy in spots, and the storyline, which seems at times contrived and predictable, is perhaps not the polar opposite of a Danielle Steele blockbuster. However, the novel is certainly redeemed by Seth's dexterity with imagery, his obvious passion for his subject, and an excellent literary ending. --Meredith Phillips


California Fire & Life by Don Winslow (Knopf), $23 hard

Don Winslow's California Fire & Life gives us Californian Jack Wade -- fanatical surfer by choice and ace arson investigator by profession. Wade was drummed out of the cops years earlier for committing a cliché -- beating a confession out of a guilty bad dude. Now, as the crack firebug hunter for the California Fire & Life Insurance Company, he's called on to investigate a major house fire with an especially horrific fatality by burning. Wealthy policy-holder Nicky Vale seems more than anxious to adjust his multimillion-dollar claim and less than sincere about mourning his wife or comforting their children ("Daddy says Mommy is all burned up"). Red flags begin to fly when the burn pattern screams "arson" and stories about Vale from neighbors and others don't fit together neatly.

As it turns out, Nicky Vale has toted serious emotional and professional baggage across years and continents, from his unspectacular childhood in Leningrad to his quite spectacular California real estate magnate adulthood. He owes much of his success to the fiercely loyal Two Crosses Gang and the Vorvskoy Zaken (the Code of Thieves). Factor in KGB bosses and Vietnamese gang lords, among others, and the intrigue surrounding the torched mansion and murdered mommy becomes a gem of a thing that reveals a new facet with each turn of the hand.

Fire is everywhere in this book. Winslow's close personal relationship with burned-up stuff provides great passages -- the smoke fairly stings your nose and the whomp of ignition takes your breath when he walks you through "fire school" or the charred remains of a fire scene. The arson investigator's glamorless, invisible world is dragged into the light. In Winslow's hands, flammable accelerants become a fascinating backstory to the compelling plot at hand. Turns out claims adjusting is cool. Who knew?

California Fire & Life is not a blowtorch. It is a smoking, smoldering threat of a book that flickers and flames and inevitably goes inferno. Reading it is like staring into a fire -- it is comforting and complex, thrilling and impossible to turn away from. And, cover-to-cover, it is hot, hot, hot. --Mike Shea


Billy and Girl by Deborah Levy (Dalkey Archive Press), $13.95 paper

Billy England, 15, and his sister, Louise, also known as Girl, 17, have been taking care of themselves and each other for five years. Their father, who used to beat Billy, apparently set himself on fire at a gas station, then their mother dropped out of sight. They get money from their grandfather, when he doesn't lose it at the track.

Billy and Girl narrate some of the novel, but most is written in the third person. When we meet them, Girl is working as a cashier at FreezerWorld, a parody of a superstore where one can buy virtually anything. Her boss is the maddeningly kind Mr. Tens. Billy stays home, writing Billy England's Book of Pain. He's obsessed with pain, having lived with it for so long. As a little boy, he played a game with Girl during which she threw bolts at him and he tried to appear indifferent even if hit in the head by one. Girl is hyper and sadistic. She goes door-to-door looking for her mom. When a lady answers her ring or knock Girl greets her with, "Hello, Mom." She hasn't turned up her mother yet, but she keeps on doing her "Mom checks."

Raj, 16, is Billy and Girl's best friend, and has the hots for Girl. He works in his parents' grocery and takes lessons about pain from Billy. Levy is at her best in Part One, Chapter 12. It opens soothingly with this announcement broadcast from FreezerWorld's loudspeaker system, "Good afternoon, all newcomers to FreezerWorld. Take your time. Explore our world at your own pace. Here are some suggestions to help you find your way around. All dairy products are on Aisle Three. Right next to our own bakery. Aisle Three, bake-eree. Say that little rhyme to yourself and next time you'll remember it. Now I have an announcement from one of our FreezerWorld staff. I have just been handed a piece of paper and I'm trying to read the writing ... yes, here goes. 'Who ever stole my Walkman from my locker? I know who you are, signed Mister X.' See folks, we hide nothing from you here. There are no secrets at FreezerWorld, because FreezerWorld is also God's World."

Then Levy takes us on a little tour of FreezerWorld, using stream-of-consciousness technique in the process. Also in this chapter: Girl steals 600 pounds from the till. Later in the book, Billy and Girl buy a broken-down 1959 Mercury with the money from someone who says he's their father. Raj, finding the Merc a challenge, works on the car obsessively, until it's in fine shape. However, he and Girl commit a sexual act in the backseat which enrages Billy, who believes he's violated the understanding underlying their relationship. So he stops talking to him and his sister, writing notes to them instead.

Billy, Girl, and Raj kidnap Mr. Tens, who's implied over the FreezerWorld public address system that he knows where Mom is. They bring him to their apartment, slap him around, then all return to FreezerWorld, where they find (maybe) Mom. Turns out she works there writing Mr. Tens' announcements. Movies and comics aiming to be somewhat like Billy and Girl are produced all the time these days, but the vast majority aren't very good. Levy, though, is the genuine article; if you're into surrealistic, nightmarish stuff, go no further. --Harvey Pekar


Virgin Fiction 2 edited by Eugene Stein (Rob Weisbach Books), $14 paper

With any collection of contemporary short stories, especially by young people -- every contributor to Virgin Fiction 2 is under 35 and previously unpublished -- the reader must be weary of the excesses of modernity. Too often, in an attempt to make a point about the harshness of reality, contemporary writers resort to simple ugliness -- usually detailed excursions into the world of abuse, neglect, and pain. The writers in Virgin Fiction 2 seem to have taken a cue from this overkill and have crafted several tales that leave out the ugliness but leave a vision of human experience that is sometimes profound and often touching.

The best piece from this collection, "Pretend I've Died" by Jonathan Kooker, places the reader between a father and son who, though lacking conflict, aren't entirely comfortable with each other, mostly because of a divorce-induced separation. "Pretend I've Died" never quite goes over the edge with emotion or confrontation, but because of this, builds a tension that it never actually relieves. The ending flashback of the day the father moved out of the home because of marital difficulties leaves the reader with more perspective about the pair, but still leaves a sense of longing. Like many other pieces in the collection, Kooker is able to craft conversation that sounds more than plausible. Without making the reader work too hard, these pieces offer fiction that seems like the story of a friend, not a script for a made-for-TV movie.

Writers write what they know, and for the most part, these stories deal with young characters. However, a few of the stories have main characters who are later on in life. The ease with which these young writers depict another age group is impressive, and without exception these are some of the best stories of the collection. For most of these writers, this shouldn't be their last foray into the published world. Anyone who reads Virgin Fiction 2 will surely compile a list of authors for future bookstore browsing. --Rod Machen


My Date With Satan: Stories by Stacey Richter (Scribner's), $22 hard

The characters in Stacey Richter's raucous debut collection My Date With Satan live in a whacked-out world where an aging child star marries his stalker and where the ghost of a severed leg (yes, a leg) observes an almost miraculous display of joy in a bar full of drunken losers. On the bare-bones level of realism, you may not believe what happens in these stories. But Richter invests them with so much hyped-up energy and rock-solid detail, any disbelief is immediately suspended and the reader is only too happy to make the journey through her fictional terrain.

In "An Island of Boyfriends," a young woman finds herself the sole survivor of a shipwreck and stranded on a tropical isle populated solely by a tribe of men who look as if "someone had kidnapped an assortment of hot boys from hip nightclubs in New York and L.A., smuggled them to the island, and decked them in animal skins." She makes her way through them all, but soon things turn sour and she moves away to a hut up on a hill, where she ponders "why none of the boyfriends, or combination of boyfriends, has ever seemed right."

In "Sally's Story," a young girl tells the story of her dog Sally, who becomes a world-class artist with her assemblages ("tennis balls, sticks, palm fronds, and chew toys" glued together with "mud or cat feces") and mound-based earthworks -- and whose fame tears the family apart. In "Goal 666," the members of a Scandinavian heavy metal band, hellbent on spreading hate and evil through their music, experience a stunning transformation during their first live performance. And in the "The Prodigy of Longing," a precocious 11-year-old boy, whose clueless father and airhead stepmom are obsessed with alien abductions, develops a fascination with the biker boy next door.

Richter's stories are filled with laugh-out-loud wit ("Sometimes I feel like the punch line to a Cathy cartoon: a pair of stumpy arms flap by my sides and the balloon says, 'How far does a girl have to go to meet a nice guy!!?'"), and her eyes and ears couldn't be sharper ("A train whistle builds in the distance, like an accordion being slowly crunched by a foot"). A few of the stories fall flat, but weak spots are to be expected in any debut collection. As hilarious, dark, and odd as these stories are, when boiled down they do what all great stories should do -- break your heart. --Martin Wilson


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