How do you tell the story of an abusive relationship when you don't recognize its wrongness until many years have passed? That's the problem and central metaphor of Wendy Ortiz's memoir, Excavation (Future Tense Books). Like an archaeologist, Ortiz sifts through the many layers of her memories in an attempt to solve the puzzle of her past. 

The result is the lightning-quick coming-of-age story of a young Southern California girl in the late 1980s. The center of the universe is the Sherman Oaks Galleria, made famous by the Valley girls of Moon Unit Zappa's song of the same name. "Valley Girl" never appears in Ortiz's memoir in much the same way that "punk rock" never appears in Patti Smith's Just Kids, but both Zappa's song and Ortiz's memoir involve a mysterious attachment to an English teacher. 

Ortiz's longstanding sexual and romantic affair with Jeff Ivers, her 28-year-old Porsche-driving English teacher, that began when Ortiz was just 13 years old, drives the narrative. That sounds like a seriously creepy situation, and it is, but Ortiz refuses to paint herself as a victim.

"This is no kid, this is no boy, this is no finger-fucking in the park... This is gut-wrenching first-time-ever oozing red love."

While Ortiz comes across as remarkably mature—something she's told again and again, usually by men—her teacher becomes increasingly paranoid and pathetic. Ortiz goes to great lengths to make it clear that she was a willing participant in the relationship long after she left his class and moved on to high school. 

"It was hard to say goodbye to this man for whom I was losing an identifier. He was no longer 'Mr. Ivers.'"

For most of their relationship, it's Ortiz who appears to hold the cards, deciding whether or not there's a place for "Mr. Ivers" in the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll she experiments with on a regular basis. But the affair isn't completely one-sided. Ortiz can be petty, and Jeff has moments where he's almost gallant.

Ortiz mixes in scenes from her recent past, providing the reader with glimpses of the kind of woman this headstrong and risk-taking girl will become while hinting that unearthing the trauma of her teenage years was a decades-long endeavor. By turns sober and searing, Excavation challenges expectations as to what abuse looks and feels like in immensely readable fashion. 


Stephan Eirik Clarkís comic novel, Sweetness #9, is also a tale of lost innocence, but on a larger scale.

David Levereaux is a junior flavor scientist at a company developing an artificial sweetener. While working in the lab, he makes some disturbing discoveries about the sweetener's side effects on the rats in his care, especially a male named Louie, to which he has become attached. "He sleeps with his face pushed down into the sawdust. He'll suffocate. But what's worse is I don't think he even cares."

When his co-worker urges him to drop it, Levereaux investigates the monkeys in the primate wing and observes that, "They were not simply overweight. They were obese." However, when he arrives at work the following day, the fat and listless rats and monkeys have all been replaced with healthy ones. 

Convinced that a conspiracy is afoot, Levereaux decides to blow the whistle on the zero-calorie sugar substitute and is summoned to the flavor company's inner sanctum for a come-to-Jesus meeting with upper management, which goes poorly. Levereaux gets canned, and then blackballed by the industry, leaving the poor flavorist to doubt what he'd seen in the lab.

"My god, I thought, what have I done? And for the first time it wasn't the memory prompted by this question that troubled me, but the uncertainty of that recollection. What had I done?"

Levereaux uses his time away from the lab to sort things out. There's just one problem: He's been sampling the sweetener, and both he and his wife are hooked, with potentially disastrous consequences for his young family. His wife's weight balloons, his son stops using verbs and his food-activist daughter loathes him. 

Clark takes the Levereaux family to the brink of the absurd and then reels them back to consider the ramifications of a world getting fatter and fatter. "We are all of us human and weak, born to succumb to our impulses and desires, and what if not desire had we been perfecting for the last ten years or more?"

That's some high-calorie angst, but Clark turns a dystopian nightmare into a comic romp through the dark side of the American dream.

Jim Ruland is the author of Forest of Fortune. He blogs at www.jimruland.net.

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