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John Domini

John Domini contributes regularly to the Rail. His latest book is a memoir, The Archeology of a Good Ragú.

With Kings and Camp Counselors

A bristling yet alluring doohickey, ostensibly about a week away from the workaday world, Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp also signals the end for one of American publishing’s finest escapes from the ordinary.

Sibum in Nighttown

The Traymore Rooms, a novel at once hugely ambitious and never above an off-color crack, aspires to be the late triumph of a long career.

The Containable Apocalypse

Over the past decade, in our finer quarterlies, few names have turned up more often than Jacob M. Appel. You also found him among the finalists for awards in the short story—and among the prize-winners. I myself once floundered in Appel’s wake, merely a finalist while he was the finalist.

Continental Divine

About halfway along, just as we’re getting the hang of Luke Goebel’s wild and voluble debut—not so much a novel as a narrative kaleidoscope, putting a few essential shapes and colors through one tumble after another—we arrive at a whole new configuration. We come to the peyote trip.

Time Ages In a Hurry: Stories

Over in Italy, Time Ages In a Hurry was one of a spate of Antonio Tabucchi titles preceding his death in early 2012. He wasn’t that old, 68, but he’d long been battling cancer, and in his last year friends and family moved him from Siena, where he taught, to Lisbon, the home of his heart.

The Gut Wants What It Wants

Amelia Gray’s Gutshot bristles in the best way. Just about every prick and sting compels you to seek more, to take up the next story—gingerly—and the next. Indeed, the author’s second set of short fiction represents an advance for her in its size alone.

Story Towards Story

For a form defined by length, the novel depends remarkably on what it leaves out. Even a novelist who prefers to let the weeds go, a Proust or a Wallace, has to prune away a few.

Given Enough Rope

Lincoln Michel has brought off a worthy debut in Upright Beasts, a rowdy klatch of stories with a number of winners. The fictions leave their most beautiful bruises about halfway through, as the author swings without a hitch from the relative realism of the section titled “North American Mammals” to the stories collected under “Familiar Creatures,” each of them a wild narrative hair.

New York Stories

Here we have two new selections of stories from two New Yorkers, both on smaller presses, both by men we might still call young. More significantly, both refract their light through the same aesthetic prism—often throwing off lovely colors, I must add.

America the Dysfunctional

Few writers can match the bifurcated career—bifurcated yet brimful—of Frank Lentricchia. Starting at the end of the 1960s, as a professor at Duke, Lentricchia established himself as a literary critic of muscle and subtlety.

Escape from American Noise

It can look as if the poet Campbell McGrath is moving away from his strengths, in his new “Hubble Space Telescope: the Galaxies (1990).” Indeed, the piece appears in a book, XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century, about which you might say the same.

Natural-Born Storytellers

If the expression “natural-born storyteller” hasn’t yet gone to the glue factory, then these two novels take the nag out for a fresh canter. Grace is a début for Natashia Deón, whose credentials include a PEN Fellowship, and while Allison Amend has three earlier books, and some prize recognition, she’s still young enough to have whipped up something new for Enchanted Islands.

Touring Trump Country in a Clown Car

For a story beset with some of the ugliest traumas of fractured contemporary America, Mary Troy’s busy new novel careens along with remarkable lightheartedness.

Daša Drndić’s Belladonna

Paging through Daša Drndić’s Belladonna, you can’t miss the lists of the dead. Twice during the later going, the text interrupts itself for page after page of names, in smaller-font double-columns. Names of the murdered, to be sure: victims of the Holocaust. 

Zachary Lazar's Vengeance

“I saw within myself,” admits our narrator, “a kind of ignorance that grew deeper the more I looked at it.” Sounds about right for his novel, too: the more deeply Vengeance draws us in—really, it’s hard to look away—the greater its ambiguity.

Joshua Mensch's Because, A Lyric Memoir

Among the many shocks and felicities in Joshua Mensch’s Because, one of the best is his way with a semi-colon.

Elle Nash's Animals Eat Each Other

In her debut novel, Animals Eat Each Other, Elle Nash has no interest in testing boundaries; instead, she crashes right through.

Running the Devil's Gauntlet: Ahmed Bouanani's The Hospital

Hades, Gehenna, Hell: every culture has one, a realm of punishment without end. By any name, too, it’s been inspiration without end. For creative types, the Awful Place allows awesome freedom.

Strange Objects & Sockdolagers

A persistent cliché insists that Big Publishing doesn’t like small fictions, yet such work keeps turning up on mainstream houses.

In Conversation

SALMAN RUSHDIE with John Domini

Towards the end of Salman Rushdie’s new Quichotte, we get the précis. We hear it from the author, but crucially, that’s not our author. The busy Manhattanite of 72, former PEN President, Booker Prize winner and more, the fatwa survivor who recently delivered a droll cameo on HBO.

Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree

Which version counts as the truth? That dangerous term? Plainly, Azar would answer both, arguing that the Old Gods still hold value, “still alive and reacting,” even as she recognizes how “mysticism didn’t offer any simple solutions to murder, plunder, poverty, or human injustice.”

Mark Nowak’s Social Poetics

Social Poetics, “contains a history of the contemporary working class: booksellers, Amazon warehouse workers … Powell’s staff, paper mill workers […] editors and copyeditors […] janitors and ‘nightshift mothers’ who clean all these office spaces … .” The list goes on, soon enough reaching the book in our own hands. Every line seems soaked with the sweat of labor. If a creative writing text ever raised a call to the barricades, it’s this one.

Joyelle McSweeney’s Toxicon and Arachne and Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Seeing the Body: Poems

Together, Joyelle McSweeney’s Toxicon and Arachne and Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Seeing the Body: Poems go a long way towards providing this dark moment its definitive accompaniment. More astonishing still, the poets bring off triumphs distinctly different. You’d never mistake McSweeney’s heartbroken stammer for Griffiths’s blue wail, yet either outcry will set your back-hairs prickling. Either could wind up a prizewinner—though good luck choosing between them—and in any case the texts will go on providing their unique, adult consolations for whatever sorrows lie in wait.

Shukri Mabkhout’s The Italian

Despite The Italian's historical focus, the novel casts light on both future and past, dramatizing a sweeping change that doesn’t appear to make much difference.

Marcus Pactor’s Begat Who Begat Who Begat & Marc Anthony Richardson’s Messiahs

These two new fictions reveal profound differences, and each in its way deserves applause. Marcus Pactor’s short stories prove kooky yet touching, while Marc Anthony Richardson’s novel has a nightmare impact, a gathering heartbreak.

Mohsin Hamid’s The Last White Man

The Last White Man is Hamid’s fifth, and the sequence clearly reveals a tilt toward the bizarre. At the level of sentence and scene, to be sure, this author has always elbowed past the norms; working with frame stories, second person, and other trickery.

Michael J. Seidlinger & Dashiel Carrera

Michael J. Seidlinger’s Anybody Home? and Dashiel Carrera’s The Deer both deliver the goods, I’m happy to say; they prickle the back-hairs deliciously. What’s more, the dreadful material is matched by unsettling craft.

Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse’s
All Your Children, Scattered

This novel’s sonorous title, we learn towards the end, comes from the Catholic Confirmation liturgy: a prayer out of Europe, hundreds of years old. Yet before we finish the book’s first page, we know that the children in question come from central Africa, and that what scattered them was a latter-day genocide. Not quite thirty years ago now, Rwandan Hutus slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors mercilessly, in perhaps the world’s ugliest recent outbreak of tribal hatred.

Kathleen Rooney’s
Where Are the Snows

“How to become a no-stats all-star, the player on the team whose presence alone causes magical outcomes?” Outcomes like magical poetry, I’d say, somehow abra-cadabra’d out of throwaway material. Everyday detritus, especially those chuckle-worthy quirks of thought so quickly forgotten, gone like a glimpse out the window of the L⎯ Chicago provides most details of place⎯ all play the muse for Kathleen Rooney.

Helen Dewitt’s
The English Understand Wool

New Directions has issued Helen Dewitt’s brief new fiction as a stand-alone text, one of their “StorybookND” series, a handsome little package. Once it’s unwrapped, though, out springs a midsummer’s night dream, a turbulent and amoral comedy, disrupting the sleep with its dodges and masks—altogether a delight. The English Understand Wool offers another spin snowball of a narrative, gathering weight as it slaloms the hills of Dewitt’s imagination.

Bachtyar Ali’s
The Last Pomegranate Tree

“Since the day I left the desert,” declares our narrator Muzafar-i Subhdam, “I have met one person after another who is running away.” With that, he widens his melancholy embrace: “Look at yourselves: who are you but a bunch of ghosts on a ferryboat, running away from something that has no name or color, that cannot be caught or tamed?” The man’s got a point, in a time when so much of the world is unhoused, but regarding his own case, Muzafar’s guilty of some exaggeration.

Soraya Palmer’s The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter, and Other Essential Ghosts

Zora’s struggle for selfhood, adulthood, while never glossing things over, finds an unlikely means of escape, or at least temporary release. The stories her parents tell—fables out of their own, very different upbringings—can, for instance, provide a daffy distraction at the grocery register when Dad’s card is declined, and more than help to open and exercise a young mind.

Mario Fortunato’s South

In Italy South appeared in the teeth of the pandemic, in mid-2020, but widespread disease is one of the few varieties of trouble that never tangles its many lines of plot. The novel instead details the impact of other calamities of the twentieth century, as it develops upwards of fifty characters, all linked somehow to two families down in Italy’s elongated toe, Calabria.

Domenico Starnone’s The House on Via Gemito

In his homeland, Domenico Starnone⎯born and raised in Naples⎯may have enjoyed his greatest success with The House on Via Gemito. He’s formidably productive, also a journalist and screenwriter, but this 2001 novel took home the Strega, Italy’s highest honor. Now it’s at last out in English, and if you ask me, the book deserves more of the same.

In Conversation

LANCE OLSEN with John Domini

In Theories of Forgetting, Lance Olsen’s 12th novel and 25th book, he may have brought off the boldest departure of a career dedicated to such takeoffs. The formatting allows the text to be read in either direction, each featuring different fonts.

Zadie Smith Offers Some New Moves

I can’t deny the spell cast by Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s latest. I can’t hold back from declaring it first a career peak, one she’ll be hard-pressed to top, and beyond that a steep challenge for any novelist out there.

In Conversation

Marlon James with John Domini

Like all Marlon James’s fiction, this novel explores the past—but it goes further back, to medieval Africa, while wholeheartedly embracing fantasy. There are bat-winged monsters and trans-dimensional portals; the book is the first in a trilogy, what the author calls, “an African Games of Thrones.”

Khaled Khalifa’s No One Prayed Over Their Graves

No One Prayed Over Their Graves⎯ translated by Leri Price, who’s also handled the three previous Khalifa novels in English⎯ erupts from catastrophe and follows well-nigh every last reverberation outward.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body

Zimbabwe's social fabric has often been in shreds, the worst toll often taken on the women: an ongoing catastrophe that provides the best background for appreciating the novels of Tsitsi Dangarembga

Jokha Alharthi: Celestial Bodies

Celestial Bodies delivers a cornucopia, the drama tasty whether it concerns a long day of overwrought celebration, scented with incense and envy, or a midnight tryst in the desert, mixing torment and ecstasy. Juggling multiple perspectives, eschewing straightforward chronology, the narrative coheres nevertheless.

Scholastique Mukasonga’s Igifu

Over the last decade and a half, Scholastique Mukasonga has resurrected an entire lost culture. Though she was nearly 50 when her first book appeared, and writing in French, her third or fourth language—depending how you count the indigenous tongues of Rwanda—her output amounts to a small but essential library memorializing the Tutsi.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed

Such wounds fester everywhere in The Committed, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s more-than-worthy successor to his Pulitzer winner, The Sympathizer, the second text in a promised trilogy. In this middle passage, the author picks so assiduously at the scabs of racism and usury, you could also call it a novel of ideas.

Picking Over The Crumbs

Texas may be the southernmost point in the U.S., but it gets awfully cold. The chill pervades Larry McMurtry’s best novels, like The Last Picture Show (1966), in which the biting winds may carry away a young man’s soul. The same threat hangs over Brandon Hobson’s new slip of a novel, Deep Ellum.

Salman Rushdie's The Golden House

The most notable risk is the cutting-edge contemporaneity. The denouement of Golden House  unfolds pretty much at the moment we read it, in later 2017, and its tragic climax the previous fall has a lot to do with the tragedy of the last election.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives

An author who gains a name—say, winning the Nobel, like Abdulrazak Gurnah—can also lose shelf-space. The books can vanish, in the libraries as well as the shops, and even before the supply chain grew sluggish, restocking could take a while.

Different Routes to Rarified Air

Both these texts expand the mind, taking the reading experience to places most never risk. One, Dreamlives of Debris, gets up into rarified air indeed, cleansing the system. As for The Gift, that’s perhaps less bracing, but always tangy and whip-smart. Before I explain further, however, I’ve got to look back half a century.

The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn & Power essays by David Shields

Before I consider a personal book, perhaps I should offer a personal story. My first substantive encounter with David Shields, following some long-distance business, was an interview for his 2017 selection of essays, Other People.

Sulaiman Addonia's Silence Is My Mother Tongue

Just shy of puberty, Saba suffers all sorts of disorientation, even at first sight of her family hut: “Aren’t refugee camps built with tents?” Later, between the huts, she gets lost in “alleyways… a labyrinth.” Complicating matters, by local standards Saba’s a mongrel, “Eritrean-Ethiopian… half from an occupied country and the other half from the occupying.”

Hoda Barakat’s Voices of the Lost

Ultimately, Voices of the Lost belongs with the most exemplary fiction of our contemporary diasporas, striving to match the new tragedy with a new form.

Dorothy Parker with a Ph.D.

Not only does Dubravka Ugresic’s novel appear in translation; you could say it’s about translation. The latest from a busy, brainy Croatian—her 14th book, half of them fiction—Fox consists primarily of worrying at various texts, though not all of them are literary.

Alyssa Quinn’s Habilis

Disorientation is the rule in Alyssa Quinn’s Habilis, right from the first sentence: “The museum is a discotheque.”


First encounter with Blake Butler’s new novel may leave you dazzled, yet also disoriented, and if so you’ll find a point of reckoning in Roberto Bolano’s 2666.

Flower or Whip?

You might call D. Foy’s Patricide a long and sorrowful aria over abuse in the home and its lingering damage; or you might call it a portrait of the scuffling white male, here in the U.S., detailing their recent tumble from King of the Mountain; or then again, it may be a scuzzball spiritual journey, Siddhartha Goes to AA, in which multiple addictions shred a young man almost to bits before he staggers to a kind of Buddhist enlightenment.

Girl, Woman, Other

That familiarity is what I’d emphasize. Myself, I love what’s outré and of-the-moment about Girl, Woman, Other. I was at once won over by its fast and loose way with the English sentence, quasi-colloquial, with minimal punctuation and capitalization, sometimes breaking down into short stacks of single lines. Yet it doesn’t take an aesthete to find the prose accessible. Anyone can appreciate Evaristo’s sensitivity to the passions in her people.

Yevgenia Belorusets’s War Diary

War Diary mounts an unrelenting assault on civilized comforts.

Elena Ferrante's The Lying Life of Adults

A “violent” intensity might erupt at any minute, an adolescent mood swing might hit like a tsunami, and yet the story maintains a canny and scrupulous realism. This author couldn’t be more alert to psychology’s delusions and society’s con games. She’s both a cool cat and a bleeding heart, combining both in passage after passage that, just for starters, speak volumes about the skill and vitality Ann Goldstein brings to her translation.

Richard Powers’s Bewilderment

In Bewilderment Richard Powers's mastery strikes a new vein, and while the takeaway by no means lacks in smarts or artistry, it makes a swift and easy read, glittering with timeless story elements; it raises goosebumps and breaks our hearts.

Defacing the Palimpsest:
Don DeLillo, New York Antagonist

For much of his career, on many of his books, one of the country’s most celebrated novelists confined his bio to a single line: “Don DeLillo lives in New York.” That was it, and more recently, as I dug into connections between the man’s work and his native city, I often suspected I wasn’t offering much better.

Marco Rafalà’s How Fires End

Marco Rafalà rouses us to applause with How Fires End. The novel teeters suspensefully between the good-hearted and bloody-minded.

Marino Magliani's A Window to Zeewijk

A Window to Zeewijk casts a shadow over conventional notions of a novel. The slim text is Magliani’s first in the US, and Emanuele Pettener’s brief introduction terms him “an original, wild author.” What follows certainly bears out the claim: a sly charmer of a fiction, its pleasures delicious but out of the ordinary.

Stories by Chloe N. Clark & Jen Fawkes

So too, the texts set up an engaging biplay between longer work and shorter, alternating pieces of a dozen pages with those of three paragraphs. Yet neither writer skimps on suffering or dread. Neither suffers a blind spot, some ugliness they’d prefer to avoid, though Fawkes deals more in terror, Clark in sorrow.

Olga Ravn’s Employees

Olga Ravn’s The Employees unpacks like a miraculous gift, alive with changes. Peeling off the first wrap, things look eerie, then at the next mundane, and while the crackle might sound like laughter, it also shivers with terror or poignancy.

J.C. Hallman’s Say Anarcha

Say Anarcha takes its title from an enslaved woman out of Alabama who, starting in her teens, not long before the Civil War, had her uterus torn apart repeatedly, in most cases without anesthesia, in experimental surgery by J. Marion Sims, a white doctor hungry for reputation. The man went on to international acclaim, while the woman returned to servitude worse off than before, leaking rank fluids and never out of pain. This is the crime at the core of J.C. Hallman’s new masterpiece of revisionist history.

In Conversation

The Lonely Scrivener:
GAY TALESE with John Domini

Gay Talese tells me it feels strange not to begin a Monday morning in “the Bunker.” By this he means his Manhattan workspace.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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