Once You Go Back
Douglas A. Martin
Seven Stories, 2009
When the teller of this story of stories rolls out in the first line of the first page, “Pretend you are my sister,” you suspect you’re in the hands of yet another delightfully manipulative Southern storyteller, which Douglas A. Martin certainly is, but it does nothing to prepare you for a seeming jumble of herky-jerky sentences, half-expressed back and forths, pesky digressions and episodic little gemlits about growing up at the tail-end of the Tobacco Road Erskine Caldwell carried us careening down seventy years ago. A feckless brother and a “slutty” older sister to whom he writes. A weak mother and an evil stepfather abandon the unaffordable siblings deep in the bigoted piney woods society of middle Georgia, Hansel and Gretel in redneck drag. Yet somehow, the pages keep turning, quicker as you go, until halfway through you realize the ride has just started: the adolescent brother is awakened by a greenish, glowing apparition that mocks his mother’s favorite icon of Jesus on the cross before slithering through the ceiling with the boy’s sexuality in tow. Aha! Martin has been laying a meandering trail first of pebbles, then of breadcrumbs, not to lead us home again, but to lure us into a candy house far more dangerous than the one the Grimm brothers created for another brother and sister team in the 19th century. The concluding chapters are full of the sensuality of Martin’s first novel, Outline of My Lover, this one also a gender-bender of fatherly abandonment filled with love, violence, envy and grace. Not a book for beery reading on a hot-weather beach, this one’s for a cold October evening in your own bedroom under a wool blanket, tumbler of Lagavulin in hand. And the door locked.
This Is Where I Leave You
Judd Foxman, the (anti?) hero of Jonathan Tropper’s novel, This Is Where I Leave You, is having a rough week. His father, whom the reader encounters only in flashbacks, has died after a long illness, and Judd has discovered that his beautiful wife is having an affair with his repulsive boss. Judd’s “crazy” family must reunite after years of estrangement to sit shiva for their somewhat beloved patriarch, and what passes for hilarity these days ensues.
Mr. Tropper can be amusing, but he veers into trying-too-hard territory more often than not. Most of the novel’s secondary characters strain belief. The Foxman brothers speak to one another in clunky, transparently expository paragraphs and address each other as “big brother” and “little brother.” This affectation is meant to be comically “ironic,” given the brothers’ troubled relationships. Unfortunately this device, like others on which Mr. Tropper is overly reliant—how many “funny” descriptions of Judd’s mother’s breast implants do we need?—fails to meet my standards for either humor or irony. Mr. Tropper’s sarcasm is clumsy more often than it is funny, and he has a bad habit of telling rather than showing. I have not yet met a person who would express disappointment in his sister-in-law by addressing her as “my profoundly disappointing sister-in-law.”
If you can forgive the author’s tin ear for dialogue, this novel is reasonably perceptive and entertaining. Mr. Tropper’s portrait of Judd’s lonely and disappointed former high school classmate, Penny Moore, is sympathetic and finely wrought, and Judd’s complicated feelings for her are believably conveyed. Although Judd’s frequent paeans to his traitorous wife’s “smoldering” looks and “outstanding” ass are wearying—he seems to be mourning the loss of his wife’s hot body more than the loss of his wife—his sad musings on the gradual deterioration of his marriage feel authentic. He is most sympathetic when recalling how his once-passionate marriage, bogged down by petty grievances, devolved into “festering” gripes and mechanical sexual encounters, after which “there was no hazy afterglow . . . no lingering in each other’s arms as the sweat slowly dried on our skin; just peeing, washing, and the donning of sleepwear, and then the warm, numbing glow of the television.”
People grow old and sick and die, and even the most promising relationships, untended, can fester, rot, and implode. Mr. Tropper’s characters are not wise enough to achieve profound insights regarding these difficult truths; the best they can do is bear witness. Family, mortality, love, and marriage call for more complex and challenging treatment than Mr. Tropper is willing or able to provide. In the end, he takes the easy way out, assigning Judd a silly jumble of nonsensically optimistic final thoughts: “The past is prelude and the future is a black hole, but right now, hurtling north across state lines for no particular reason, I have to say, it feels pretty good to be me.” Given the novel that precedes this perplexing line, the reader can only wonder why.
Breaking the Bank
Yona Zeldis McDonough
Downtown Press, 2009
Imagine going to the ATM and getting free money. Yona Zeldis McDonough’s new and remarkable novel Breaking the Bank explores this very idea in a modern day fairytale in which its main character, Mia, is our new superhero.
Everything seems to be going wrong for Mia Saul. Her husband has left her for another woman and comes around periodically to lavish their 10-year-daughter, Eden, with expensive gifts, but he pays his child support onlyirregularly. Mia is short on money. She has lost her job and now balances unemployment checks with freelance book editing work. Mia and Eden move to a downscale apartment in Brooklyn, NY where their new neighbors consist of a drug dealer and a widower who lets his dogs go to the bathroom in the hallway. Eden’s increasingly negative behavior at school is not helping and Mia wishes she had the support she so desperately needs from her estranged and successful brother and family.
Mia is in need of a miracle—and a miracle comes her way! When she tries to withdraw $100 from her bank account at the ATM a magical thing happens: the ATM starts giving Mia thousands of dollars without withdrawing it from her account. Mia’s secret cash seems to promise new hope and opens up a whole new world of opportunity for her and her daughter as well as a lot of trouble. Mia’s family starts questioning her ability to take care of Eden, especially when the cops ask Mia about her possession of a rare ten thousand dollar bill. Soon her life is upside down and spinning out of control.
Mia doesn’t just use her cash to help herself.. “Use it well:”—the words from the ATM machine inspire her to help others in need. For every bit of cash she gets from the ATM, Mia helps others, even when she could use the money. The many gifts of money from the ATM take Mia on a journey in which she finds love and friendship in people she never would have glanced at before.
Breaking the Bank, Yona Zeldis McDonough’s third novel, is a truly spellbinding tale that will force you to think about money and social class in a new way. Mia’s voice is strong and speaks to all of us, especially in these tough economic times.</p