Pumpkinheads, Drunks, and Yuppies on Vacation | Book Review | Chicago Reader

Pumpkinheads, Drunks, and Yuppies on Vacation 

New fiction from Aimee Bender, Lisa Selin Davis, and Joy Nicholson

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Willful Creatures: Stories

Aimee Bender

(Doubleday)

In her first book of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender introduced characters with ESP, holes in their torsos, and hands made of fire and ice. One of my personal favorites was a guy who devolved until he was a tadpole kept in a baking pan of salt water by his loving girlfriend. That collection made me feel like writing--and apparently it wasn't just me. Stories reminiscent of Bender's distinctly North American brand of magical realism swamp the current literary scene like Kmart realism did in the 80s.

This new collection has the feel of a sequel: it's less resonant overall. But Bender does succeed with a few fanciful setups such as the one in "Dearth," a story about a passel of potatoes that appear in a woman's cast-iron pot one morning and return daily, despite her attempts to get rid of them. After they develop toes and fingers, she accepts them as her brood. Then, in a moment of doubt, she buries them alive. "End of the Line" similarly engages and disturbs: a lonely man buys a tiny human buddy; for dinner he offers his pet "a drop of whiskey inside the indented crosshatch of a screw." Bender is adept with such details, but this story really takes off when the little man grows irritating and the big one responds with brazen cruelty. In "Ironhead" a pair of pumpkinheaded parents mourn the death of their son--who was born with the titular household appliance up top, rather than a pumpkin. What's surprising is how Bender can make you care for these creatures, even if their real-world analogs are almost too obvious. "The pumpkinhead family sat together at the cemetery," she writes, "and the mother kept uncovering dishes of warm food so she could release steam on his grave, because she wanted to give him voice, to give him breath again."

Though this sounds like an extreme case of metaphors gone wild, Bender is able to abandon surrealism and focus on recognizable relationships in a more straightforward, often bitterly funny way. "Debbieland," for example, though limply plotted, is a take on childhood cruelty that leaves a nagging ache. When the mean kids, now adults, run into Debbie, their erstwhile object of ridicule, they aren't exactly repentant. "Suddenly we feel she must owe us a thank-you for giving what would be an otherwise fairly dull life a bit of texture....She has more fodder for her insulted self; she has a new way to tell her old story." --Susannah J. Felts

Belly: A Novel

Lisa Selin Davis

(Little, Brown)

The protagonist of Lisa Selin Davis's first novel, Belly, is despicable. Fifty-nine-year-old Belly O'Leary is insensitive, childish, demanding, rude, cruel, misogynistic, judgmental, self-righteous, and self-pitying. He's a drunk and a serial philanderer. He's just infuriating. So why did I care what happened to this insufferable bastard?

As the story begins, Belly is heading to Saratoga Springs, where he's lived his entire life save the last four years, when he was cooling his heels in prison. He expects to find his mistress (and a pile of illicit cash) waiting upon his return. He'd been a big shot in his hometown--in his own mind, anyway--running the Man-o-War Bar, conducting an illegal bookmaking operation on the premises, and screwing in the bar's back room. His alcoholic wife had split long before.

But Saratoga Springs has changed. His bar has been replaced by an upscale coffee shop. Strip malls dot the streets. His mistress never calls. His fat-cat city hall connections have been run out of office. All he has left is his family.

Belly's interactions with his daughters are the key to the book. Nora, the oldest, provides him with an attic room until he gets on his feet, though she's pregnant and has three sons at home. He virtually disowns his second-born, Ann, a lesbian, and belittles his fourth, Eliza, a hippieish vegetarian artist. The presence of his beloved third daughter, killed in a car crash at 16, hovers over them all, and all--except, of course, Belly--accept some degree of responsibility for her death.

In the face of such horrific parenting, the daughters come off as heroic. Belly is a drunk prick, yet he's their father and they love him for that. They repeatedly forgive his bad behavior because they hope for at least a glimmer of love in return.

Despite such depressing subject matter, Belly is a rewarding read. There's a lot of unexpected humor involving this "normal, unhappy family," and when, after ruining his nephew's confirmation party, Belly takes an unsteady step toward redemption, you pull for him--mainly for the sake of the women in his life. --Jerome Ludwig

The Road to Esmeralda

Joy Nicholson

(St. Martins)

Unreliable narrators abound in The Road to Esmeralda, the second novel from Los Angeles-based writer Joy Nicholson. The first, Nick, is a bundle of paranoid tics and alcoholic rage so annoying--and exhausting--I had to set the book aside several times before I made it through the first section. I was grateful when calm, all-seeing Al took over. Compared to Nick, Al is the voice of reason--at least until you realize he's a sociopath.

The two come together at the Gasthaus Esmeralda, a resort like no other on the Yucatan coast. Run by a pair of eccentric German retirees with help from Al, an aging rent boy turned handyman, the place is an oasis of calm, Teutonic resourcefulness in the ever-encroaching jungle. Searching for an escape from the materialism of their life in Los Angeles and post-9/11 news cycle of war and horror, Nick and his girlfriend Sarah, a self-righteous, animal-loving wannabe hippie, land there after fleeing the anti-American taunts and jibes of Playa del Carmen's international backpacking set. Sarah is convinced that the remote resort will give Nick space to work on his novel--a memoir of his deranged father masquerading as a Vietnam war story. Sarah, meanwhile, looks forward to losing herself in honest labor, animal husbandry, and homeopathy under the tutelage of the proselytizing proprietor.

Needless to say, none of this works out quite as planned. Nick's Yankee cynicism and Sarah's idealism run afoul of local politics and intrigue. Secrets spill out, motivations get murky, and the story becomes something much darker than a simple sketch of innocence abroad.

Nicholson, author of the cult YA novel The Tribes of Palos Verdes, gives a nod to Robert Stone in her acknowledgments, and Esmeralda does display certain Stonian qualities--Nicholson's cast of druggie burnouts rivals any of Stone's antiheroes. But it reminded me of Barry Lopez as well, both because of its respect for the eternal clash of nature and civilization and its withering pity for the hubris of self-involved Westerners. Nicholson almost blows it with some gratuitous last-minute politicking, but when the characters and events set up over the course of the novel finally converge, the result is a brutally inevitable fuck-you finale that's as bad a trip as any Alex Garland conjured on the shores of his beach. --Martha Bayne

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