Tag Archives: literary fiction

Beautiful Gravity – Martin Hyatt (Antibookclub)

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As one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Carole King, once wrote: “So far away/Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” And we don’t. Restless transients that we are, most of us–especially in the queer community–long to escape the places in which we were raised. To start over, to create our own lives even as we carry old traditions into new surroundings. If, for whatever reason, we can’t leave,  we yearn to do so. But those who leave soon find they can never escape, which is the primary lesson in Martin Hyatt’s latest novel, Beautiful Gravity.

Boz Matthews, born and raised in Noxington LA, still works at and lives over his grandfather’s highway diner. Drifting through his days slowly filling salt shakers and waiting on tables when he isn’t beating off to Marcello Mastroianni, he is visited intermittently by his best friend Meg, a seriously manic depressive preacher’s daughter who is as fragile as she is indomitable. When failed country music star Catty Mills and her songwriter/manager, Kyle Thomas, a former Noxington boy himself, come to town, the misfits find themselves in a menage a quatre that results in both birth and death by the end of the book.

The themes in Beautiful Gravity are nothing new, but Hyatt works them as if they are, creating complicated characters whose actions are sometimes as unclear to themselves as they are to us. Catty’s binges, Kyle’s remoteness, Meg’s dependencies, and Boz’s distance are vaguely rooted in their pasts and we get glimpses of those parts of their lives, but they’re less important than how those actions affect the intertwined lives of all four.

For a work so centered on escape and return, the place from which the characters do both is always present, yet rarely described. Hyatt paints the town in broad strokes, providing a few juicy details to hang the image on, then he leaves it brooding in the background, there yet not there. Instead, Boz is the true center of gravity–indeed, the title of the book comes from Kyle referring to Boz’s “beautiful gravity”–but the center around which they all coalesce is dangerously unstable himself. As with the town, Boz is there yet not there. Regardless, he is of a piece with the other three members of the menage. The sum of this relationship is definitely greater than its parts. Yet each part has its function. Kyle provides its masculinity, Meg its fragility (and fecundity), Catty its adventurousness, and Boz its soul.

Hyatt has created a wonderful portrait of four individuals and the relationship they form in combination. Sexually charged and scarred both physically and psychically, their shortcomings and strengths meld into a group dynamic unlike anything most of us will experience. That alone should be reason enough to read this, but then there’s Hyatt’s prose, which is deft and beautiful. It’s stealth prose–you don’t realize how deeply it cuts until it’s too late. Highly readable and highly recommended.

JW

©, 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Little Reef and Other Stories – Michael Carroll (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press)

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It used to be, way back in the twentieth century, that a literary author would make a name by first publishing a small collection of short stories, most of them appearing in those tiny circulation quarterlies that dotted the landscape, attached to every Liberal Arts College in the Land. Sometimes, a slender volume of verse would appear first. Some fifty people would review the first book, maybe thirty of them having read it, and unless it was bad, the author was on the way up. That was before the current Age of Over-Information that we (so ambiguously) enjoy. Nowadays a confessional memoir or slam-bang novel is almost de rigeur for that path: something big, bad, and, as Jean Cocteau said, something to astonish us.

So it’s kinda cute that author Michael Carroll starts off his own literary career with a collection of stories, and that a handful of them, from the first half of the book actually, were printed in some of those quarterlies either still generously endowed or barely holding on by their fingernails. This collection is in two parts: “After Dallas,” and “After Memphis,” and these tales are not divided by place or time as much as they are by ambition, scope, style and yes, even by content.

The early six stories are almost what any self respecting Brooklyn, New York authoress might write and savor. They’re a little autobiographical, a little earnest, a little sly and funny, and filled with the required shrug-of-the-shoulders attitude and put-on jaded and/or over-medicated aura that today passes for contemporary fiction. But they’re also well-written, easy to take, sharply observed, and most of the characters–including the narrators–get little sympathy and even take a few well rendered beatings on several levels simultaneously. To our pleasure, I have to admit. Especially the two young male/female couples in “The Biographers” and the crusty old gent, widower of the dead writer they’re nattering on about. The one piece that breaks the mold and ends up being quite moving is “Werewolf,” about a straight childhood friend, and the gay male narrator’s relationship with him over the years. It’s a carefully composed piece, with not a comma out of place and, therefore, an utterly credible and creditable narration.

Then we arrive at Part Two, and it’s altogether something different. Knowing Michael a little and his partner a great deal better (or at least longer) this reviewer couldn’t help but think the aging author being cared for by the callow narrator of the five later, longer  pieces are strongly based on them; and so a kind of queasiness or giddiness set in, making  this a post Robert Gluck meta-fiction in which who knows what to believe, really. Yet these are by far the more interesting set of fictions: first, because of the easy going, almost rambling style which fingers the reader as surely as did Coleridge telling about that crazed sailor, and second,because you probably think you know who those major and minor characters –the latter mostly sketched in– are or can shrewdly guess who they might be, narrowing it down to one or two. And third because it seems so intimate and confiding, just like well, Pip or Holden or Nick Carraway, that you’re seduced pretty thoroughly.

Seduced but not lobotomized. Is this a memoir in the making? A fake memoir? A novel in several pieces–it takes up three-quarters f the entire volume? Or what exactly? And what story is being told here? That’s often as uncertain as the location of Schrodinger’s cat. Take “Avenging Angel“ as an example. The story begins in one of those standard-as-possible writers’ work/vacation New England towns (he even references Stephen King!) in great, novelistic detail, and suddenly without any transition I’m aware of, switches to Faith Fox, a long time friend of the narrator’s. From there on it moves back and forth between his current life and her life which he sees in enormous, if momentary, chunks of gory detail whenever she reappears. Anyone who’s lived a few decades will recognize this woman–trendoid to the max–she comes in different shapes, sizes and flavors, and to my mind personifies what we mean when we speak of a zombie. But then we’re knocked back into the story with the older writer, who has had a debilitating stroke and who is increasingly presented as a Baron de Charlus type: “The old libertine can barely move” he calls out, not able to get out of the car by himself. “That’s hilarious,” I muttered, though how I cared for him. “Here, grab my hand.”

Is that irony? Is that affection twisted somehow? What gives? His and the narrator’s story takes place alongside that of Faith as though they were meant to play off each other, or make each other resonate, but that didn’t happen for this reviewer. One area is simply more interesting than the other, and because any emotion possible is held over the fire so long, it’s unclear what we are supposed to feel and for whom exactly.

But … having written that, any story or stories that make me actually think about them  that much are certainly worth my time. And all of these stories are. I think Carroll has opened out a space if not yet a landscape for himself, and he has done so with believable dialogue, intriguing characters, and situations that feel free to promise future benefits if not exactly future revelations. Give it a try.

Reviewed by Felice Picano

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Down in Cuba – Vincent Meis (Fallen Bros Press)

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When Down in Cuba begins, it’s been three years since Martin and Leo have seen each other. We know right away it’s over between them. Leo’s little girl Anabela remembers tío Martin from the photos that Leo has kept. She’s wearing clothes that Martin has sent as a present.

When the chronological story begins, Martin Vandenberg is a 46-year-old tenured professor at a small school in southern California. His academic specialty is Martí, Cuban intellectual, poet and hero of the Cuban War of Independence. Vandenberg has been married for over twenty years. He has a daughter he adores. Apparently he’s never questioned his relationship with his wife or his sexuality. In fact, he’s been running pretty much on autopilot for a long time.

When he receives a year’s sabbatical to write a book on Martí, he goes to Cuba to begin his research. On one of his first nights in Havana, he meets Leo, a handsome Cuban half his age. Leo blows the doors off the closet that Martin Vandenberg didn’t know he lived in.

In a declaration of passionate denial that many of us who married women will recognize, he declares, “You hear people talk about, you know, being in a closet. What does that mean? I never felt like I was in a closet. Leo is an attractive guy. I was drunk. I swear to God, this is not going to change my life.”

But it does. As it must.

Told in Martin’s nervous POV, Down in Cuba is a romantic tragedy in which flawed characters fail to get what they believe they want. Martin and Leo struggle within their cultural imperatives and mores, each wanting somehow to bridge the gulf between them. The silver lining to the tragedy is that they both find a truer life than they had when they met.

The book is structured in time-blocks arranged out of sequence, opening almost at the end. The intervening time-blocks are not flashbacks, but current-time episodes that will eventually give meaning to the beginning as well as the end.

While I’m not a fan of stories with reshuffled timelines, I appreciate that Meis chose this technique in support of the story. It creates a diffused ebb and flow in the relationship between Martin and Leo, keeping its fate ambiguous until all ambiguity is dispelled.

Martin is concerned that Leo is interested in him only for money or to escape Cuba. Ultimately, Leo proves the stronger, more honest and self-aware of the two. As capricious and self-centered as Martin believes Leo to be, Leo forces Martin into authenticity that he couldn’t have achieved without him. He forces Martin to come out—a gift far greater than anything Martin gives Leo.

Through Leo, Martin learns what week-to-week survival in Cuba requires: selling soap on the black market or raising roosters for fighting, befriending foreigners, easing frustration with rum and cigarettes.

Leo may be a good-hearted opportunist, but he is also an artist whose dark paintings reveal a haunted place in his soul. He is uncompromising and honest in his self-interest. He is scarred and tattooed. He is a wild being, full of passion.

One day in Old Havana, Martin and Leo make love standing at a window while a political rally fills the streets below them:

“Tell me what you hear, coño.” He sounded angry. I laughed. “Come on. You’re making me crazy. Stand up by the window. Look out. Look at the people. Look at the funny people on the street.” […]

“Look at the people. Look at my country,” he whispered, his mouth on my ear, the hot wisps of air tickling deep nerves. “All right,” he said. “Now. Do you feel it? Do you feel it? Look at the people. Can you see them? Come on. Look. Look. Look.”

Like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, Leo forces Martin to break open, but remains unchanged himself. He wields a frightening kind of integrity.

Down in Cuba is a gripping, thought-provoking, emotionally satisfying book. The characters are strong and fresh. The writing is immediate and unadorned, yet it creates a subtle, mercurial, even elusive, Cuba. It draws the reader into a collision of cultures that sheds a stern light on unexamined expectations of fairness, and attitudes that Americans like Martin might carry, such as presumption of a moral high ground that may not be warranted.

I urge you to read this book.

Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker

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