For some, it's the sights and sounds of baseball. For others, it's the smell of backyard grills drifting through the neighborhood. For me, it's the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books that tells me summer is right around the corner.
Every year, I make the pilgrimage to L.A. to attend the festival and come home with loads of books. This year, I moderated a panel called "Fiction: Over the Edge," which involved no small amount of reading.
Readers of The Floating Library are already familiar with Joshua Mohr, whose Bukowski-esque novel Damascus I reviewed last November. Los Angeles author Joseph Mattson is no stranger to Bukowski comparisons. His collection, Eat Hell, published by Narrow Books, investigates the lives of down-and-out Angelenos. The novel Empty the Sun, which comes with a soundtrack performed by Six Organs of Admittance, circles the drain with a down-and-out blues-guitar player who hits bottom in downtown L.A. after his index finger is chewed off by a police dog.
His latest effort is an anthology published by Akashic Books called The Speed Chronicles: 14 stories about America's equal-opportunity drug. There's a surprising range of emotions on display here, from horror to humor, with contributions from Jerry Stahl, William T. Vollman, James Greer and even James Franco. With the exception of an exceptionally weak offering from Sherman Alexie, these stories are, as Mattson describes in his introduction, "heart-wrenching narratives of everyday people, good intentions gone terribly awry, and the skewed American Dream going up in flames."
This description would not be out of place on the back cover of Rob Roberge's most recent book, a collection of short stories called Working Backwards from the Worst Moments in My Life.
The collection features men and women who've been through the wringer and are trying to make changes in their lives. Roberge keeps them close, so that when they fail, we can see if they do so with grace or, as is more often the case, an utter lack of dignity. There are exterminators, demolition-derby drivers and men who share cells with desperadoes with the words "I can" and "see you" tattooed on their eyelids.
Things take a grisly turn in the second half of the collection as the stories move into territory staked by Barry Gifford, who wrote the novel that David Lynch adapted for Wild at Heart and co-wrote the screenplay Lost Highway. Slick, brutal and weird, these stories remind us of the violence that lurks at the edges of our awareness. From the sketchy-looking high-desert drifter to the nightmares derived from our own past, Roberge reminds us there's no escape from our desires, and sometimes those who don't survive are the lucky ones.
Survival is first and foremost on the mind of the protagonist of Bohemian Girl, Terese Svoboda's latest novel. It's a book that eludes easy descriptions because it can be categorized so many ways: comic romp, historical picaresque, a drama about pluck and perseverance.
Svoboda's slender narrative opens with its heroine, Harriet, pondering how to escape her fate as the slave of an Indian obsessed with building mounds. Through the course of her adventures, she avoids tornadoes and army camps, the latter being more dangerous to a young girl on her own.
Her saving graces are the limp she received from being shackled to the Indian and the quick wit she cultivates on the trail. Her lameness allows her to escape the attention she might otherwise receive, which she manipulates to her advantage throughout the story. Along the way, she spouts off pithy sayings that are both admirable and endearing: "Bravery when you have no choice is worth less if you brag about it."
But to discuss Svoboda's work without mentioning her writing is like going to a restaurant and describing only the architecture. By turns hallucinatory and precise, Svoboda, who comes from the heartland of Nebraska and now makes her home in New York City, pulls America's past into focus with searing clarity. What I find particularly fascinating is that she never victimizes her protagonist to earn the reader's empathy. Rather, her protagonist's simple brand of con artistry so closely resembles the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches trajectory that the storylines are virtually identical. Harriet's refusal to be made a victim transforms her from husker to huckster in a way that, like Huckleberry Finn on peyote, is both completely captivating and quintessentially American.