Abraham Rodriguez, South by South Bronx (Akashic Books, 2008)
Full of innovative stylistic flourishes and classic noir motifs, Abraham Rodriguez’s new crime novel South by South Bronx is infused with the right balance of new and old. As the story shifts back and forth from first to third person, changes in narration are mirrored by the application of different fonts. In one chapter, the action is interspersed with biographical sketches about Leni Riefenstahl, Anne Sexton, and Marlene Dietrich, which illuminate the focal character’s complex motivations. Embellishments like these work together with the novel’s classic gritty noir aspects, like a coolheaded, eye-patch wearing gangster named Spook, and Sanchez, a streetwise, chain-smoking cop. The result is an admirable blend of classic and contemporary.
South by South Bronx reaches beyond the scope of its genre to comment on race and ethnicity, the gentrification of New York’s boroughs and the artistic process. The story encapsulates the creative trials of Mink and Monk, two burnout artists struggling to revivify their careers. Through their creative tribulations Mink and Monk, a painter and a novelist, depict the challenging social issues woven into the plot. Though neither plays a pivotal role in the action, they observe from the periphery and illuminate the social concerns underlying the story.
What is most striking about South by South Bronx is the obvious affection Abraham Rodriguez has for both the crime genre and the Bronx itself. The story teems with geographic and cultural details that only a native Bronxite like Rodriguez could capture with candor and authenticity. While all its aspects may or may not congeal, South by South Bronx is a charismatic outing that will engage anyone.
D, Cake (Akashic Books, 2008)
Cake, the follow-up to Kenji Jasper’s first novel Got, follows its nameless protagonist in the months proceeding Got as he tries to escape the crimes he’s committed in his hometown of Brooklyn. At the outset of the story, the protagonist of Cake is enrolled in college and living with his cousin in Atlanta. In no time, he finds himself in a downward spiral of murder, tracksuit-wearing thugs, a duffle bag full of guns, and a large quantity of crack. While at times the plot veers into the predictable, Cake’s tempo and stylistic consistency never flag. Written in a slang-peppered diction, the best scenes feel authentic and charged with frenetic, paranoid energy.
The anonymity of Cake’s protagonist informs the didactic bent of Jasper’s project. The protagonist is an everyman, representative of a larger group of people who would prefer to lead normal lives, but find themselves ensnared by prodigious social and economic disadvantage. If the novel has any aim other than to provide an intense, wrenching crime story, it is to proffer the message that Cake’s narrator is just like hundreds of people living in a city near you.
Both Cake and Got were written by Jasper under the pseudonym “D.” Although Jasper did not claim authorship of Got at the time of its publication, it is now known that D and Kenji Jasper are one and the same and that both Cake and Got were written to help launch Akashic Books’ new urban noir imprint, The Armory. One can only guess that Jasper’s continued use of the nom de plume means there’s more to look forward to from D; hopefully, it will also mean that forthcoming titles from The Armory will continue to plumb the urban noir genre with as much success and insight as Cake.
Ross Raisin, Out Backward (Harper Perennial, 2008)
The first thing Ross Raisin does in his debut novel is make you laugh. You’ll be impressed at how soon he was able to make you laugh. Next thing you know, you’re through to the end of the first page, impressed and laughing, and just a little bit scared to go on to page two.
Like a sniper, the voice watches from up top on a rock, passing his judgments on the “ramblers” below. It is not a comfortable position to be in—not for Sam Marsdyke on the rock, nor for the reader who Sam has trapped up there with him. “Trapped” is perhaps the wrong word, since you don’t really want to leave. But the voice Raisin has created, Sam’s voice, in the form of digressive but always lucid thoughts, is the only one we ever get to hear. There is no direct dialogue or action presented outside of his point of view. These are some clues as to where the story is headed.
Set in North Yorkshire, where the Marsdyke family work their small sheep farm, the plight of the farmers is slowly coming to a head. Farm subsidy checks are drying up as more townspeople come in, looking to buy up farms as bucolic vacation homes. “The country was a Sunday garden to them, wellingtons and four-by-fours and glishy magazines of horse arses jumping over a fence.” Sam, the young outcast, is completely drawn toward the teenage girl who has moved from London into the estate bordering the Marsdyke farm. They begin a brittle friendship based on teenage rebellion on her side and a growing obsession on his.
This is a near-perfectly executed book, seamlessly constructed within a sociopath’s mind. There are very few slow spots, but they are saved by Sam’s dark voice, full of humor and malice.
Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
A literary memoir set in the landscape of illness comes with a set of challenges: on one side lies the perennial vegetation of Reader’s Digest drama-in-real-life with its banal melodrama, often accompanied by miraculous white-light conversations with God—and on the other that erudite border dug by Susan Sontag who so eloquently wrote a disquisition against poetic metaphor in describing disease.
Sarah Manguso, in her memoir, treads lightly down this thorny path, seemingly conscious of both perils, and adopts instead an earnest understatement to describe her nine-year ordeal with Chronic Idiopathic Demyelinating Polyradiculoneuropathy, a disease also known as CIDP.
In episodic short chapters, she contemplates the identity crisis chronic illness imposes on the person who existed and still exists adjacent to the patient created by the physical debilitation. In one haunting passage she writes, “This person, whose hand I am shaking at this moment, is another person who never knew me before the diagnosis.”
Sometimes she travels in first person, sometimes second; the latter makes her body our body. Most times her sentences are factual and lean of metaphor (one hopes Sontag would approve), with breaks that are more stanza than paragraph. Various forms are employed, including aphorisms and a section where every paragraph begins with “I remember” in the style of Joe Brainard. A simmering frustration and fury are well conveyed in harrowing accounts that describe her stoic parents and an erroneous diagnosis; its accompanying steroid treatment gravely aggravated the real malady.
In ending, Manguso delivers us not to the obvious trumpet calls of triumph over death, but to a certain detached contemplation, saying, “This is the usual book of illness. Someone gets sick, someone gets well.” Here the tone grows increasingly remote, almost apologetic for the limitations of illness memoir, offering instead a list of poetic abstractions clearly earned from the excruciating concrete experiences her disease has exacted.
Alice Mattison, Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn (Harper Perennial, 2008)
Alice Mattison returns with another novel, Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, and another set of female relationships. As with her earlier The Book Borrower: A Novel, the book spans two time periods, fourteen years apart, with the first segment finding the main character, Constance (Con), alone in her mother’s Brooklyn apartment, trapped after her purse is stolen. Con lacks the aggression, resourcefulness, and ability to think on her feet that one might expect from an urban lawyer. She wanders helplessly around the small space, curious and sympathetic toward her mother’s life and relationships. She begins to uncover secrets of her mother’s relationship with Marlene, her best friend, and a lifetime of extortion and manipulation. The friendship is confusing and somewhat unsettling; one begins to wonder—did Con’s mother, Gert, have even more to hide from Marlene, explaining this submissive role in their friendship? Or was she as simple-minded as Marlene—and sometimes, Con—thought her to be? Mattison layers in her backstory bit by bit, character by character.
Con is a window-shopper of her own life, watching events and people pass by, without fully integrating herself. In the earlier segment of the book, she ends her marriage, and does not put forth the effort to make changes in order to keep it intact. She also allows an assignment at work to fall apart near its completion. In the second cross-section of her life, fourteen years later, Con appears to have shown little personal growth, and must be persuaded to keep friendships active. The two looks into Con’s life offer amusing stories that easily move along, but without much in-depth investigation of the characters.
Alice Mattison, a native of Brooklyn, is well aware of the intense sense of pride that Brooklynites feel for their hometown. Mattison acknowledges the tacit understanding that if you leave Brooklyn, you still claim it as your own, and no matter how long you’re gone, that monstrous borough will always welcome you home with open arms.