Book Review: ‘Visible Man’ by Chuck Klosterman

It’s obvious where Chuck Klosterman came up with the premise for his novel The Visible Man. Old Red Beard’s 2009 book of essays Eating the Dinosaur includes a chapter about watching through the window a twentysomething woman who lived in an efficiency apartment similar to his own in Fargo. Making dinner, working out on a NordicTrack, cooking an elaborate dinner, and then fighting with her boyfriend.

Did she watch him, too? He suspects she did. Maybe even watched him barf one night. Or maybe that was a dream.

‘For two years I watched a revolving door of nonevents that never stopped intriguing me,’ he wrote.

Thus the invention of the character with the alias Y__. Victoria Vick is a therapist who has begun sessions with Y__, who reveals that he was involved with a government project that resulted in the creation of a series of sprays and creams that make it possible, through light refraction, to travel through the world unseen. He’s not invisible, per se. He’s just deeply camouflaged.

Y__ takes advantage of this invention — a project that was abandoned by his fellow creators and forgotten by the government — to slip into people’s homes and observe them. He is fueled by the belief that you can never really know someone unless you see them when they are alone. That their public self is merely an adaptation that shifts depending upon who they are with.

Y__ doesn’t necessarily want a therapist. He wants to unburden himself of a secret. The nights spent silently watching a woman go for a run, come home and go nuts on a bong, binge and run some more. Eventually he feels he has to intervene. He believes that if he throws off this cycle, she will find some relief from her addictions. He eventually intervenes with bad results.

Then Victoria becomes a little too interested in Y__ and his unique lot.

The novel is played as a series of meetings with Y__ that have been compiled for publication. It includes summations of sessions and emails that she wrote to herself afterward, the standard note-taking of professionals who have to record inane details about your life so that the next time you get a cavity filled you can resume a conversation about pets and vacations.

The Visible Man suits Klosterman’s strengths as a writer, debater, and pop culture expert in a way that his debut novel Downtown Owl did not. His forte is the hypothetical scenario that includes a wild card element — then giving it fan fiction treatment. With Downtown Owl, the wild card was merely a looming storm. The end result was Klosterman squeezing himself into some sort of mold of what a novel should look, feel, and sound like. It was better than okay, but it felt like Klosterman wearing Jon Hassler’s face paint.

Chuck Klosterman has a very distinct and powerful voice. Like, if you spent too long with him or read his entire canon, you would be in danger of catching it. This is a pro when it comes to his essays; a detriment to his work as a novelist. The three main characters in Downtown Owl sounded like incarnations of the same person, all saddled with the burden of a Klostermanian accent. Almost all of The Visible Man‘is the in the words of Y__. So when he leans Klostermanian, it works because he isn’t pitted against another version of himself. (Adversely, with the character Victoria Vick, Klosterman seems to have over-corrected and written a woman who is pretty dim and seems like an unlikely candidate for a career in therapy).

Klosterman still makes a better essayist than a fiction writer, but with The Visible Man he gets pretty damn close. This is a super fun read that leaves you watching yourself a little more closely in those alone moments, wondering ‘What would Y__ see?’

This review was originally posted September 26, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Feature: Bigfoot in Moose Lake, Minn.

By Christa Lawler
Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune

Moose Lake area residents who claim to have seen Sasquatch will share their stories on an episode of “Finding Bigfoot” airing 9 p.m. Sunday on Animal Planet.

The team of researchers and television crew visited northern Minnesota in August to investigate a concentration of claims around the Kettle River. The hour-long TV program, in its second season, shows the four-person team touring the woods on all-terrain vehicles, meeting with residents, re-enacting anecdotal evidence, then doing their own investigation decked out with night- vision gear, jump suits and lures.

“I’m excited and a little nervous about what we’ll look like on there,” said Kristy Aho, who is featured on the episode with her husband, Dale, and four young children. They claim to have seen Bigfoot while partridge hunting in the area of Automba about three years ago.

Aho said her husband had gone into the woods to make a loop past some birds. The animal had been squatting, then jumped up, creating a loud crash. She described the being as human-like, upright on two legs with hands swinging down by its knees and about 8 feet tall. Then it took off running.

“The whole ground was shaking,” she said. “The four-wheeler was shaking. We saw it run by about 15 feet away from us. I was really scared. My mind knew it wasn’t my husband, but it resembled a human.”

The fight-or-flight instinct kicked in, Aho said, and they opted for flight. It took a while for Aho to feel comfortable going back into the woods, but she wasn’t uncomfortable sharing her story with the viewers. While the people featured on the show are earnest in their stories, to other people Sasquatch is no more than campfire lore on the level of the Loch Ness Monster and UFOs.

“You feel like people are going to make fun of you or put you down if you say you saw one,” Aho said. “It’s intimidating. But we know what we saw.”

Lorraine Tomczak is in the Aho’s camp.

“That doesn’t bother me,” she said of naysayers. “I was very fascinated that they would want to talk to me. I wasn’t worried about that kind of thing.”

CURIOUS CREATURE
Tomczak saw a creature on Carlton County Road 6, going west toward Automba about a year ago. She describes seeing a big ape with human features. She made sure the doors of her station wagon were locked.

“I was going into town that day and the thing was looking into a vacant trailer house,” she said. “He was, I don’t know, curious, like animals and people are.”

Tomczak and “Finding Bigfoot” researcher Cliff Barackman revisit the trailer during the episode and, using a tape measure, determine that it was about 9 feet tall.

“He was a big thing,” she said. “I didn’t know it was a male, but the lady on the road ahead of me said she had seen the family jewels. I said I didn’t look that close.”

Tomczak wants to see Bigfoot again. She has even had a dream about encountering an entire family of Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) and being allowed to hold a baby Bigfoot.

“I was fascinated by it,” Tomczak said. “It was something you don’t see every day.”

The investigative team includes two men who claim to have had Bigfoot sightings, according to their bios on Animal Planet’s website: Matt Moneymaker had his first encounter while camping in a swampy area in Kent, Ohio; James “Bobo” Fay has had multiple sightings, his first in 2001.

Cliff Barackman has only seen evidence of Bigfoot. Ranae Holland is the crew’s resident skeptic, a biologist charged with identifying the creatures behind recorded growls and broken trees.

She said she thinks the people featured on the program genuinely believe they have seen Bigfoot and would pass a lie detector test if pressed. But she also said she believes a lot of sightings can be explained and that it is likely other animals being misidentified.

“The human mind is a funny thing,” she said in a phone interview. “Shadows and the way a canopy can move and you see something – your mind will start molding things into an object it wasn’t.”

Holland grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D., and said time spent with her late father was time spent either testing stuntman gear or watching movies about UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster and Sasquatch. Part of her reason for being on the show is the connection to him. Part of it is the lure of a Bigfoot story and how it captures the imagination of children and fosters critical thinking. Part of it is pure curiosity.

“What’s out there that is creating this phenomenon?” she said. “That fascinates me. We can’t seem to get tangible evidence for me to say OK, I believe.’ I want to know one way or the other. That’s what keeps me going back out into the woods when it’s cold and I’m hungry. I want to see what these people keep telling me they’re seeing. They’re seeing something. OK, if Bigfoot is real, show your ugly, smelly face.”

This story ran in the Saturday, January 14, 2012 edition of the Duluth News Tribune.

Feature: Richard Rosvall, steampunk artist

By Christa Lawler
Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune

If you ever run into artist Richard Rosvall, there’s a good chance he’ll be wearing a dark bowler hat with handmade goggles of wood, leather and lenses set on the brim.

 It’s a bit of an “Around the World in 80 Days” look and it attracts attention, but not as much as some of his other creations would if they were trotted out in public: his collection of high-altitude breathing appa­ra­tuses, a hand cannon complete with a copper-coated toilet ball or a rifle that features the belled end of a clarinet.

For the past three years, Rosvall has crafted pieces of steampunk art – a style that takes items from the steam-power era and gives them a science-fiction tilt: items that re-imagine how people in the Victorian era might have envisioned the future. Rosvall’s work incorporates leather, copper, wood and the inner mechanical pieces of old typewriters and adding machines.

“It’s the stuff Jules Verne used to write about, looking at it from the hindsight of the 21st century,” Rosvall said. “People love to dress up. There is an appeal to the Victorian era. People were polite.”

Annie Dugan, curator at the Duluth Art Institute, said she is seeing more work and steampunk-themed events in this area in the last few years, including pub crawls and art shows. Friends of Industry, a collective of artists, hosted a show last summer. Limbo Gallery has also shown steampunk art. There is talk of a steampunk ball in the works by a handful of steampunk aficionados.

“It’s a perfect fit for our region,” Dugan said. “A lot of it is about invention and certainly creativity. I love the idea that northern Minnesota (cultivates) the sense that you’re cut off from the rest of the world. It’s this northern wasteland, and you have these bizarre machines coming out of that.”

ROSVALL’S WORK
Rosvall got into making steampunk art when his son, Erik Rosvall, commissioned a Halloween costume from him.

“Steampunk has been getting pretty big,” Erik Rosvall said. “I like the aesthetic of it, the idea of the clockwork stuff.”

At first it was just a mask and a weapon. It developed into body armor and hats and more masks, an eye patch and more accessories. Vegetable-tanned leather that has been wetted, molded and dried. Copper pounded with an anvil to make patterns.

Right now Rosvall is working on outfitting an entire flight crew for a March fashion show. He has part of a leather corset wrapped around a dress form, and he plans to incorporate a skirt and thigh holster, complete with one of his pistol props with wood pieces he fabricates or takes from wooden chair backs and detail work that includes cranks and levers from old clocks, typewriters and fishing gear.

His crew will sport the high-altitude breathing apparatuses he made, which have copper nose covers, leather straps, trunk-like nose pieces with a dollop from a colored scouring pad sticking out of the end of it. Hoses connect to belts.

OTHER STEAMPUNK ARTISTS
For Rosvall, the appeal is that he can make things inexpensively. He finds materials at thrift stores. Also, there aren’t any rules, just basic guidelines. That’s what other local artists have latched on to as well.

“It’s so nice that you can make it your own. There isn’t a lot of It has to look like this,’ or It has to look like that,'” said Patricia Peterson, who designs whimsical steampunk fashions. She showed pieces during an Occupy the Runway event in the fall. Her work includes dresses and hats.

“The Victorian lace and all the soft things, then you have the industrial, the metals and the really funky punk part of that really hard style, then bringing it together to make fun and interesting looks,” she said.

Eric Horn is working on a steampunk-themed graphic novel called “Chronicle.” He takes photographs of local models, sometimes wearing Rosvall’s creations, then draws over them to give it a comic-book look. Horn was recently part of an art show in which slides of his images were shown on a steampunk-themed TV: A wood-like frame shaped like an old-fashioned television and fitted with a white screen made by Gustave Campanini, whose approach to the art is to make large-scale things in the steampunk aesthetic, but using the decidedly un-steampunk material Styrofoam.

Getting into steampunk has caused a stylistic shift for Campanini, who was working with a lot of color and has challenged himself to give things a 1800s look.

“I try to keep it as simple as I can,” he said, “to work with natural tones. Everything I’ve been doing looks like leather and rusted metal. Usually when I paint, it’s been more like I have to make it look old.’ It’s been quite interesting and challenging.”

Eris Vafias, who operates Limbo Gallery, said she uses steampunk as inspiration.

“I enjoy symbolism and a lot of the symbols – keys, clocks, peacock feathers – associated with the steampunk genre happen to be symbols that I am either fond of or gravitating toward due to some personal association,” she said.

You’re only limited by your imagination, Rosvall says. He works nonstop on projects, and one idea can inspire four more ideas.

“I never expected that three years later I’d still be fooling around with it and having fun,” he said.

This story ran in the January 1, 2012 edition of the Duluth News Tribune.

Travel: Phoenix, Arizona

By Christa Lawler
Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune

The second-biggest mistake travelers to Phoenix make, the cab driver says, is renting a car from the wrong airport.

We’re on our way from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway (where we exit on the tarmac on a warm night, greeted by a cactus and a half-dozen wheelchairs) to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to pick up my mis-reserved wheels.

The cost for this lesson: $60+.

I took Allegiant Air’s inaugural direct flight from Duluth to Phoenix last weekend, an event that included sheet cake at the airport, a complimentary sleeve of golf balls and the words “maiden voyage” repeated so often that I was surprised there wasn’t a marching band. I spent about 65 hours in the Valley of the Sun, mostly downtown. I ate the most intense salsa I’ve ever had and was mistaken for a prostitute. I questioned Phoenix native Alice Cooper’s legacy and watched a car melt. I studied American Indian art and history and was left alone on a bus for 10 minutes while the driver ran in to Walgreens. I was charmed by Tempe’s Mill Avenue District and grossed out by the dirt undertones of the tap water.

And – because of another snafu with my car reservation at the second airport -I did it all by navigating the city’s decade-old Valley Metro light rail system and city buses. This was clean and convenient and gave me the chance to gaze at the surrounding mountains, hills and reddish rock formations, rather than following a GPS or my face pressed to a map. Smart phones, with access to public transportation routes and compasses, have made travel so easy that everything pre-2000 seems like an episode of “Little House on the Prairie” in comparison.

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

The light rail system is easy. It’s efficient. It’s bicycle-friendly with hooks to hang them on in specified cars. The windows are tinted to block out the sun. And its passengers are oddly chatty. I hear conversations about the naming conventions of domestic airports and I see a man try to share a can of Tecate beer with a 19-year-old kid he mistakes for his nephew.

The buses, however, are empty. It’s just the driver and me heading into the foothills of the South Mountains. Toward the end of the trip he pulls over at a bus stop, mumbles something and jumps off. He leaves it running, doors open, and walks into Walgreens. This seems different. Dangerous, even.

For about the third time in my life, I wonder: “What would Sandra Bullock do?”

I get off the bus and stand next to it. The driver returns about 10 minutes later and we proceed without incident – though he doesn’t find jokes about bus theft very amusing.

BEST BRUNCH IN TOWN

The first meal of the weekend for both tourists and Phoenicians -and even Food Network star Guy Fieri, who has left his graffiti-style stamp on an inside wall -is at Matt’s Big Breakfast, a square brick diner where all morning long the sidewalk is crammed with rumbling tummies.

“There are 19 names ahead of ours,” a woman groans to her group. They don’t leave.

Most clusters gather on the somewhat shaded side of the building. It is already 85 degrees at 10 a.m. and the sun is pan-searing my blue Minnesota skin. It goes quickly, though. Will gladly trade a 45-minute wait in the slim shade of a street light in exchange for this day’s special: Three-egg scramble with chicken artichoke sausage and baby organic spinach bound with Fontina cheese. The wheat toast is cut as thick as a slab of beef loin and served with blueberry jam, a concentration of flavor that rivals chutney.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

Aside from the crowd outside this small diner, there is little movement in downtown Phoenix on a weekend afternoon. It has the apocalyptic feel of downtown St. Paul, so many suits evacuating on Friday at 5 p.m. The voice of a busker, stationed on North Central Avenue and East Adams Street, bounces off the buildings and is heard blocks away.

Alternately, the Mill Avenue District – located a 30-minute train ride away in the adjacent city of Tempe -has brick sidewalks, is inordinately clean and is full of activity.

It’s a mix of chain and charm: Hooters and Five Guys Burgers, but also retro-style clothing store Hippie Gypsy and Old World Books, a used bookstore where a wizardly-looking man with a cane asks if he can help finding anything. I smile, say no and almost trip over a long-haired cat lounging in the stacks. Some of the restaurants with outdoor seating provide mists of water over the patio, so fine it feels like being sprinkled with cool powdered sugar.

I’m third on the scene of a car fire on Saturday afternoon, so close that at least three people ask if it’s my ride. The blue Nissan Versa has flames creeping from the hood to the windshield and the car seems to melt as the fire grows. The driver and a passenger escape with their things before firefighters snuff it using hoses and an axe.

There is an intriguing butte at the foot of the Mill Avenue train stop. The hill has a massive A on the side, visible from Sun Devil Stadium, home of Arizona State football. Dot-sized hikers can be seen walking, some running, up the winding path. I find a father taking his kids through a round of calisthenics and explaining the income levels of professional athletes. It doesn’t take long to get to the top, an elevation of 1,500 feet, with a view into the bowl of the Sun Devils’ stadium -though not quite the field. This is fine, as the Sun Devils are on the road this weekend. When airplanes from Sky Harbor fly over this butte, it seems like I should be able to read the pilot’s nametag.

FROM SHOCK ROCK TO T-SHIRT SHOP

Game nights must be wicked in downtown Phoenix, where the Arizona Diamondbacks play Major League Baseball at Chase Field and, when there isn’t a lockout, the Phoenix Suns host NBA games at US Airways Center. But this Saturday is quiet -except for a pub crawl of twenty-somethings prowling the city in Mardi Gras beads and fishnet costumes or oversized mascot heads.

A purely scientific question has been eating at me for days. Q: What would a restaurant and bar owned by metal shock rocker Alice Cooper look like? Word on the street is that servers have smears of black makeup under their eyes. A: Alice Cooperstown is a barbecue-themed sports bar and restaurant with an attached souvenir shop. It has T-shirt racks. And its owner, known for maybe or maybe not ripping the head off a live chicken then drinking its blood, closes up shop by 10 p.m. on a Saturday night.

Oh, Alice Cooper. How perfectly Coldplay of you.

MYSTERY CASTLE

The bus takes me a little less than a mile from Mystery Castle, which has a back story as interesting as its actual architecture. Boyce Gulley left his wife and daughter in Seattle in the 1930s when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He moved to the outskirts of Phoenix and began building a dream castle for his daughter, Mary Lou, using dirt, stone and the kind of stuff one would find cluttering a hoarder’s lawn.

The result was an 18-room, 13-fireplace home complete with secret coves and cubbies, built-in beds and tables, balconies and patios. It took about 15 years to build, and his estranged wife and daughter didn’t find out about it until after his death. They then spent the rest of their lives at the castle. Mary Lou died a year ago.

The castle sits in the foothills of South Mountain, a rocky formation with a view of a golf course and downtown Phoenix, but a half-mile from any sort of main road with nothing else around. The lawn is filled with bird baths, ceramic dogs, cactus plants and wagon wheels. Much of it is without electricity, the sun through recycled windows as its main light source.

HEARD MUSEUM

It’s a challenge to resign yourself to an indoor educational activity when it is 95 degrees out and sunny. In a mental tournament between the Phoenix Art Museum, Desert Botanical Gardens and Heard Museum. The latter, specializing in American Indian art and culture, wins. A temporary exhibition of Retha Walden Gambaro’s “Attitudes of Prayer” is a collection of smooth sculptures caught in contemplative and freeing moments. Also stunning is Steven Yazzie’s “Fear of a Red Planet: Relocation and Removal 2000.” It is a bit like an extra-large graphic novel-style mural, the story of the forced removal of Arizona’s native population told in panels on the wall in the Ullman Learning Center.

NOT FOR SALE

It would be a gross oversight to not eat Mexican food on this trip. I use a combination of proximity, Phoenix’s alternative weekly newspaper and the Yelp app to land at Comedor Guadalajara, located just off of downtown and next to nothing but a freeway exit.

The restaurant is a big room with a barn-style roof and the music system is piping pop music with Spanish lyrics about dancing and nighttime.

The pre-meal salsa is unreal. It’s so spicy it pinches parts of my tongue I didn’t even know existed and tickles my sinuses. The server keeps it coming. I have a combination platter that includes a cheese enchilada and dessert.

On my way back to the bus stop a truck honks at me twice, performs a U-turn, then pulls on to a nearby side street. The driver honks again, two short beeps. Then he drives past the stop, honks, pulls on to another side street, honks.

This is when I realize he thinks I’m a prostitute and I set a personal record in the 50-yard dash back to the restaurant’s parking lot.

LEAVING PHOENIX
Getting from downtown Phoenix to the airport in Mesa on public transportation would require an Olympic level of juggling luggage, trains and buses, so you really need a car. Since I don’t have one, my cab fare exceeds the amount the driver can accept using his archaic credit card system. This ends in a bargain: Buy a 45-mile trip, get 12 of those miles for free.

Phoenix has long been a hot spot for golfers and retirees, but I’d recommend it as a winter destination for anyone looking for a quick, inexpensive weekend getaway to melt off the layer of freezer burn that sets in about mid-February. I’d have liked to hike more, drive in the mountains and visit the kind of place where drinkers hitch horses to posts before bellying up to the bar.

The local NBA team’s moniker is no joke: The best thing about Phoenix is the sun. It gets an early start and stays up late and it feels great when it bores into your back. In Phoenix you are guaranteed bright days and temps considerably higher than in the Northland -though it is relative. On an 88-degree evening, a cab driver apologized to me for the cool weather.

“Buddy, you don’t even know,” I thought.

This story originally ran Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011, in the Duluth News Tribune.

Bayfront Blues Festival

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune
The second to last thing anyone would expect to see at a blues festival: A cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” The absolute last thing: The classic tune performed by a dream team of three nuevo-blues musicians who are easy on the eyes, hard on guitars.
Blues Caravan 2011 – Girls with Guitars featuring Cassie Taylor, Samantha Fish and Dani Wilde shook things up midafternoon Saturday during Bayfront Blues Festival. The ladies, who each have thriving solo careers, joined forces for a set that caused a ruckus among the thousands of fans who turned out for the second day of the event at Bayfront Festival Park.
They’re young. They have full voices. They have songs that run from girl power to social justice. They’re intense and rip up the stage. Taylor, the band’s bass and keyboard player, has bluesfest in her genes. She joined her father, Otis Taylor, on the stage a few years ago. Wilde, a guitar player and vocalist, is from England. Fish is a Kansas City girl who came into the limelight while playing the Chicago Blues Festival last year. 
Perhaps young Nick Roloff of Coon Rapids, Minn., summed up the spectacle best:
“They play better than the guys – and they’re hot,” he said.
The Roloff family ditched out of the show early for the meet-and-greet area and landed at the front of what would become a very long line. The Trooper Award goes to Nick’s mother, Colleen Roloff:
“I have to take a picture of my husband and two boys with the girls,” she said.
Here are other scenes from the 23rd annual bluesfest, which finishes with headliners Vicci Martinez and Beverly McClellan, who play at 5:45 p.m. today on the main stage.
BIG WALTER SMITH & THE GROOVE MERCHANTS
As long as there has been a Bayfront Blues Fest, there has been Big Walter Smith on the bill. The old man was dressed in all white and propped on a stool for a set that included songs like “Stand by Me” and “I Ain’t Drunk (I’m Just Drinkin’ “).
“Twenty-three years,” Smith said, counting his performances at the park. “Twenty-three years.”
The 81-year-old was the day’s first performer on the main stage and had a full lineup of musicians all dressed in white – a guitar player, a keyboardist, drummer, bassist, trumpet player, sax player and trombone player.
He had fans singing along to “Hey Hey The Blues is Alright.”
“He’s so warm and loving,” said Mary Anne Burns of Maple Grove, Minn. “He’s like our grandpa.”
SHE & HIM
Donna Herula tells breathless stories with the touch of a Midwest accent. But her music has a Southern style. Herula returned – this time with her husband, Tony Nardiello – for a show in the acoustic tent.
They teamed up for Lucinda Williams’ song “Jackson” and Herula showed off some of the Robert Nighthawk songs she covers on her second album “the Moon is Rising: Songs of Robert Nighthawk.”
Following that, Peter Karp & Sue Foley performed songs from their album “He Said/She Said,” which is taken from letters they wrote back and forth while on the road, after meeting years ago at a blues festival.
Karp is a writers’ songwriter, with interesting lyrics that sometimes lean a little sexy. Foley has a deceptively pretty voice. Together they have a twee sensibility, like a bluesy She & Him.
CHASTITY BROWN
Chastity Brown, a Memphis girl-turned-Minnesotan, couldn’t sign on to the “sit down and play nice” style of the acoustic tent. She finally had to kick her chair aside and stand up and dance, her cowboy boots moving and tapping. Brown has a big soulful voice that sounds like her guts are being squeezed.
Andi Spike, a blogger from St. Paul, is a blues fan who was covering the event for her fashion-music-vegan living website Bunny Warrior. She favors young blues musicians, she admitted, and said she likes the way they incorporate modern influences.
Spike said Brown was her early pick for a favorite of the day.
“I think she was the best I’ve seen,” Spike said. “She has surprised me the most.”
This story originally ran in the Duluth (Minnesota) News Tribune on August 14, 2011

Book review: ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Chad Harbach

By this time last year, the world of contemporary fiction had me dizzy with a one-two whammo of love and envy. Shit was tight. I wouldn’t pay $50 to press my breasts against the stage while my favorite band played. I’d have paid $50 times 50 to scrape gum off Jennifer Egan’s shoes or observe Gary Shtyngart with his lips wrapped around a bottle of top-shelf vodka. And then there was Freedom and then there was House of Tomorrow. Panic ensued: Which one did I want denting my cheek when I went to sleep? Would Hilary Thayer Hamann be my little spoon?

This year has been a dud. I say that as of right this second. There is a lot of promise in that yet-to-be-released queue. But if someone dangled me by the ankles over a body of water teeming with water snakes and said: “Give me your Top 10 of 2011 or you’re going down, kisser to forked-tongue-kisser!” I’d end up with a face full of belt material.

I’d have my number one, though. Reading it felt like a sigh. Finally something I can strap to this dismal year to keep it afloat. Thanks, Chad Harbach.

The Art of Fielding, Harbach’s debut novel, has that Irving-collegiate chill to it, though it’s coming off the Great Lakes rather than an East Coast bay.

The story is built around Henry, a kid from small-town South Dakota with no life plans, but who is pure poetry at shortstop. He’s complicated in his lack of complications. For more than 500 pages, little else about him will be revealed. Baseball genius, reads and re-reads his idol’s book The Art of Fielding. No favorite foods, no lust, no introspection, no humor. Just baseball and what it takes to get better at baseball and what happens when he hits a terrific and ill-timed slump.

Henry is discovered by Mike Schwartz while playing summer ball. This lumbering loaf of an athlete, hopped up on the pain pills it requires to play Division III football and baseball, sees Henry’s potential and takes action. He gives Henry the hard sell, sends for his high school transcripts, goes suave on Henry’s doubting father and gets the kid enrolled at Westich College. Schwartz is a dynamo. A big body who makes things happen for other people, yet cannot kick the pills, get into an upper tier law school or finish his thesis.

The university’s president Guert Affenlight has taken a shine to Henry’s super-cultured, eco friendly, gay roommate Owen. The 60-year-old, who looks 50, falls hard in his only homosexual crush. Also: his daughter Pella has left her husband in California and is auditing classes. She’s whipped the Westich boys into a froth, but it’s Schwartz who lands her.

Then, disaster. When agents and scouts start dangling dollar signs in front of him, Henry makes a bad throw, the first presumably of his life, and everything goes haywire. He starts thinking too hard, questioning speed and aim, pausing too long and making the first baseman work way too hard. This, in turn, throws off everyone around him.

This buzz-book has gotten enough chatter that it’s impossible to not give it an extra finicky read. So you secured a $650,000 advance, eh Mr. Harbach? Big numbers for a rookie, huh? Well I don’t like the pacing of the first 50 pages! A reader might think to herself. Then that same reader might re-evaluate the critique after a bit of self-analysis: It’s not so much that Henry jumps grades within a single paragraph. It’s that he is so fun to read about that you don’t want to grow up too fast.

The novel is proof that fiction doesn’t have to start itself on fire. The story isn’t surprising or twisting or heart wrenching or cruel. It’s easy. Sometimes its predictable, but sometimes it dekes left and goes right. Hot damn if I didn’t love every single character — enough at one point to want to order 50 pizzas to Harbach’s house to get back at him for what I thought he was going to do to one of them.

Now. I need to find nine more books that sing before that ball drops.

This review was originally published on Minnesota Reads on September 18, 2011.

Book Review: ‘Kiss & Tell’ by Marinaomi

Sat down to write about artist MariNaomi’s draw-all tell-all graphic memoir Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume from 0-22, and found myself penning memories about playing tug-o-war over the one neighborhood boy on Fifth Place Northwest. Playing boyfriend-girlfriend in a room full of girls, sitting in a bean bag chair and drinking water we pretended was spiked with “Spanish Fly.” Surely something we had seen on “Love Boat,” our faces pressed together making “Mmm Mmm” noises, our heads making figure eights.

A “StarWars” fanatic whose friendship I forked left from the first time I saw Madonna on MTV. There she was, bed head and black lace, set against a white box. A clear line in the sand: No longer giving a rat’s about R2D2, but craving, absolutely craving tulle skirts, pouty lips, exposed stomach, flirtation, and please God, rhythm.

I bet this is a pretty natural response. Especially if the reader came of romantic age to a Cure soundtrack, like MariNaomi. The premise isn’t unique. Neither are the gritty, fuck-you-dad teen tantrums of this West Coast-based former wild child. Her taste for the mohawked and dreadlocked, the homeless teens, older dudes and future inmates suggests a certain After School Special-ness I wouldn’t have dared to test in the 1980s, which makes the gawking all the better.

It start with her origin story: Her father as an officer in the army teaching English in Japan and falling for one of his students, her mother. It’s a short story that says a lot about the conservative backbone of the family. In the final panel they coo over their young daughter, blessing her with the opportunity to someday fall into a love like theirs. “One day you’ll find a man to take care of you,” her father says.

Things quickly shift from their story of chaperoned dates to a not-so-innocent story of a pedophile babysitter who trades her nudity for grape gum, snaps a bunch of pix, then shows her his in a chapter called “The Most Beautiful Penis I’ve Ever Seen.”

She breaks her story into sections divided by age and the stories quickly turn from cries of Cooties to sneaking a boy in her bedroom window, Billy, who is cockblocked by, simultaneously, a menstrual explosion and her mom’s footsteps in the hallway. She grows up quickly in these pages, losing her virginity in her early teens, dropping out of school, running away from home, dabbling in the ladies and maintaining a relationship with a boyfriend who is sent to jail.

They are told in negative-style panels, back backgrounds with white images of orgies and tough talks.

Marinaomi is probably one of those people who has probably gotten the old “ohmygah, you should write a book about your life” over drinks with friends. She definitely succeeds, sharing the deets on dozens of romantic relationships without blinking. It’s solid entertainment that won’t change your life, but it will definitely take you back to that time in the bushes when you played kissy face with the neighbor.

 This review was originally published on Minnesota Reads on September 11, 2011.