May 9 2012 08:51 AM

Reviews of The Speed Chronicles,' Working Backwards from the Worst Moments in My Life' and Bohemian Girl'

floating-library

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. 

Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.

Calendar

  • The renowned Mexican black and white photographer presents an exhibition exploring the principal themes within three groups: "Bestiarium"," Fantastic Women" and "Silent Natures."
  • Presented by Pacific Arts Movement, the sixth annual mini film fest features 14 film programs from 10 countries that includes everything from docs to romantic tearjerkers. See website for full lineup and...
  • Debunk some of the stereotypes surrounding cannibalism at this new exhibition that takes a hands-on approach to the subject. Includes video games and interactive activities where patrons will have to decide...
  • The former local boy and creator of the highly influential blog, Advanced Style, will be signing and discussing his third book, Advanced Style: Older and Wiser, which features inspiring pictures and stories...
  • C.J. Chenier and Bonsoir Catin headline this annual Cajun inspired festival. Also enjoy 10,000 pounds of crawfish, dancing and cooking demonstrations. Held at Spanish Landing Park, across from the...
  • A Cinco de Mayo party featuring $2 tacos, cocktails and live music from Bostich+Fussible, Javiera Mena and Gepe
  • A spoken word showcase hosted by English instructor Karla Cordero and her City College students. There will also be a special reading from poet Mercedez Holtry, as well as an art and photography show....
  • Widely known as host of "Weekend Update" on Saturday Night Live and for his role in the Showtime dramedy Weeds, Kevin Nealon brings his unique humor back to the stand-up stage
  • New works from over a dozen UCSD undergraduate students. Participating artists include Charity Algarme, Richard Lin, Joseph Maas, Ignatius Nguyen, and more
  • This video art exhibition from UCSD MFA candidate Stefani Byrd features two installations that explore the themes of breath, mediation, and the nature of time. Takes place in the VAF Performance Space,...
See all events on Thursday, May 5