As we wind up 2012 here, I’ve started looking beyond the Mayan doomsday & reading books that will be published in early 2013 – a perk of the bookselling gig, but also, if the world ends in December, at least I’ll be well-read & caught up. Here are three early favorites for you that involve repeated face-punching, faking your own death, and apathetic vampires. So, maybe I’m not looking so far past that doomsday after all…
Donnybrook by Frank Bill (FSG, March 2013)
Frank is also the author of Crimes in Southern Indiana – a Catapult Notable Book from last year – a collection of intense, violent short stories about the stinking, meth-lovin’ underbelly of America. In last year’s review, I called him “the real deal, a stone-cold badass writer with more skill & chops than you know what to do with.” I’m sticking to that assessment after reading Donnybrook, believe me. Frank scares me a little. Actually, I don’t think that there is a character in Donnybrook that wouldn’t make me pee a little if I met them in a dark alley. Even the pretty girls will break you in half or blow your face off with a .45. So the Donnybrook is an annual, 3-day bare-knuckle fighting tournament held on a 1000-acre compound owned by a madman in the middle of nowhere, Indiana. The $100,000 payout for the last man standing is enough to tempt every manner of scumbag deviant and half-wit for hundreds of miles around. Some come for the cash, some for revenge, and some for the fame, such as it is. All narrative strands are heading in the same face-punching direction, unfolding like a brisk, violent Guy Ritchie script on a serious dose of crank. Frank’s prose races through your veins like, well, like I would imagine a significant meth-rush would. Yeeeaaaaaaaaaa!!! Hillbilly-noir, some call it. All I know is it’s a rockin’ good time.
Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie, Jr. (Viking, February 2013)
Currie is the author of Everything Matters! – the #1 Catapult Notable Book from 2009 and a long-standing favorite of mine. This new book’s right in my fiction-reading wheelhouse – blurring the lines between what is truth and fiction like no other recent book I can think of. And man, is this a difficult book to wrap your head around enough to tell your friends about. It’s not really an autobiographical novel, but… it kind of is, at least in part. The protagonist is named “Ron Currie” and has significant echoes of Ron himself, yet is wholly different in his actual life arc… up to a certain point. Sort of a multiverse Ron Currie. Character Ron is an author who has written a modestly successful novel, has a fractured relationship with the love of his life (Emma), and ends up retreating to a Caribbean island to write his next book. (All things that happened to the real Ron Currie, more or less.) While he’s down in the Caribbean essentially drinking himself to death, he has a failed attempt at reconciliation with Emma and ends up driving his Jeep off of a pier one night. As he drifts semi-conscious to an isolated beach, he goes missing just long enough for the local authorities to declare him dead and when he returns, he decides to write a post-fake-suicide suicide note and leaves the country. This death-fakery ultimately creates more problems than he anticipated, as his suicide note and unfinished book – about his relationship with Emma – get discovered and published to great acclaim. He becomes a cult hero in his fake death, which leaves a far wider wake of emotional destruction than he thought his actual death ever would. There’s a very clever, head-splitting structure to this – that blurring of fact and fiction – that pushes the reader to abandon the confines of genre, in a way. The real Ron Currie didn’t fake his own death and disappear for years in the Arabian desert, but you’re constantly wondering where the fictional Ron ends and the real one begins. Should either Currie be held responsible for the emotional response of his readers if what he wrote was just a “fictional representation” of his experiences? The following excerpt – (character) Ron’s public explanation after his death is revealed to be a fraud – fairly sums up the crux of this pretty brilliant, button-pushing novel. (This quote is from the ARC, so it may appear differently in the final version):
So what I’m wondering is, why should the story suddenly mean any less to you just because it isn’t factual? It’s a ridiculous distinction to begin with. Consider the popular cliché “there are two sides to every story.” Perception is singular and faulty and unreliable. I will remember today’s events differently than you will. We could both write down our impressions of this hearing, and it’s more than likely that our accounts will differ. Does this mean that either of us is lying? Of course not. But if neither of us is lying, then neither of us is telling the truth, either. We’re incapable of it. We are not reportage machines. We’re perception machines.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (Knopf, February 2013)
Yet another followup from a former Catapult Notable author – Russell’s Swamplandia! was on last year’s list, among earning various other, more substantial accolades. This is another collection of her brilliantly written short stories (see also St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves from 2006) that are pretty much all weird, creepy, and fantastical. The title story is about… aging vampires who live in a lemon grove in Italy, what else? Clyde and Magreb are an old married couple who’ve been together for over a century – where do you go from there? Clyde doesn’t like to turn into a bat and fly around anymore – Magreb does. So, it’s really about this marriage that has hit a colossal rough patch. Brilliant. Other gems: a vaguely nightmarish Japanese factory where women are literally turned into silkworms in order to produce silk for the Empire; President Rutherford B. Hayes awakes to find himself reborn in the body of a horse, living in a stable populated by other former US presidents in the same predicament; and the hilarious, ridiculous Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating. Go Team Krill!