Sunday, July 10, 2011

the intimacy of voice and characterization: d.r. haney's banned for life

Banned for LifeBanned for Life by D.R. Haney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

duke haney's writing voice is completely intimate, and mesmerizing, and this is a remarkable debut novel. banned for life moves along at a good clip, keeps you guessing, and pushes you deeper into the lives of his wonderfully wrought characters until you are completely immersed in the world of his book. i talked a lot to this book while reading it: arguing with the characters, who felt like friends of mine, nodding with satisfaction when they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, cringing when they made decisions i thought they’d realize were mistakes.

prior to reading banned for life, i had read duke's essays so i already knew i could expect great writing and i was eager to see what he could do with a fictional landscape. i had some reservations about this idea of "punk novel". i worried that without in-depth knowledge of the punk scene i would be lost (i am pretty positive that i partied with DOA after i went to one of their shows in university but most of my memories of that period are understandably dim and i would not consider myself a punk aficionado otherwise) but as soon as i cracked this book open, that expressive voice began telling me a story, the story of a fella named jason (the narrator), a story where punk is the conduit jason's maturity: it instigates his interest in learning to think for himself, how to face life, how to embrace it, what to do with it, what he's willing to take, and how to stand up. through punk he becomes bonded to his best friend peewee and these two and their actions and reactions are the core of this book, they push and pull, they drive themselves and the story, in their search for an ethos.

jason is such a persuasive narrator that i sometimes wondered if he was duke in reality, and sometimes the novel seemed to confirm that suspicion and then a few pages later would make me disavow the idea entirely. pee wee is a perfectly conceived character, who slides off the page so filled with rage and angst, so snide, so smart, and so vulnerable that he could pass for holden caulfield's grandson. i loved him so much that when he and jason were at odds i was restive. i felt indulgent with peewee even when he was an ass. i can't say that's true for all of the characters that peopled this book. irina, jason's main love interest made me want to punch her in the eye, but again, that's a testament to duke's consummate skill with characterization because he drew such a convincing portrait of a beautiful woman who is self-involved and stubborn, one who doesn't own how her actions affect anybody else, who expects people in her life to sublimate their own desires unless they are in sync with her own, who expects to be indulged. she is one of those women that other women don't like. she is a woman i would not tolerate in life any more than i did in this novel. every time she appeared, i felt as i do when mr. collins makes his appearances in pride and prejudice. truly, i wanted to shake the bejesus out of that bitch. this is not to say that there aren't other sympathetic female characters here: for me, one of the most memorable is irina's polar opposite, monika. monika plays a small but pivotal role in the novel and i adore her. despite the fact that she appears on so few pages, my impression of her is still vivid: a woman who is committed to making things work, who is open and strong, who has a relationship that isn't traditional, but one that she is nonetheless committed to, and even if she can't just be with one person forever, she still loves them in the way she can love, and stays true to herself. in so few words, duke paints a portrait of a woman i could respect, with whom i entirely empathize: she's not a saint, she does some shifty things, but she does those things because she is devoted and honest. i was fascinated by the character of jim, who evokes jim morrison, and daniel johnston very strongly for me. i really responded to jason's desire to help jim, the man who had given him the music that had spawned his own awakening, and i felt his pain when he realized that jim might not be salvageable.

i admire the hell out of this book. i really enjoyed reading it, and the few problems i had with it largely have to do my inability to buy a major character shift as the novel resolves itself. it just didn’t ring true to me that a character that was so definitively delineated could drastically change that quickly, and completely -- perhaps duke did his job too well for me in this instance. but even with that reservation, this novel concludes in ideal circumstances, and setting, with the joy and fury of people who demand change, who are willing to admit protest and violence in order to make a life that they can believe in, echoing the self-realization through the punk ethos that threads itself through this novel.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Give it to me straight: the unadulterated pleasure of pure story distilled, or my review of Ben Loory's Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the DayStories for Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Raymond Chandler once said that a "good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled." When I first came to read Ben Loory's stories five years ago, I began to see just what Chandler meant. For me, these stories were, and are, a revelation: in some ways so modern, their brevity suited to our contemporary attention span, so easily consumed sitting on the subway, while wondering how a particular tale might end (I never could guess what would happen next), and yet so familiar: so like the fables, and myths, the sagas, and the dreams and the twilight zones that I have loved, that they feel they must have existed before Ben wrote them.

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is pure distillate of story, boiled down to the essential words that unfurl inside and take up residence, and the disarming restraint of their sinewy form only serves to bring me in closer so that I'm collected inside them, as they are inside this book, as they collect inside my memory, as they make laugh (oh so hard), cower (equally hard), and smile (hardest there is). They make me feel, for those moments when I am in them, that I have a reprieve from this world, and have really lived these stories myself, that I was part of them and those sublimely surreal other worlds that we are still left to discover in this looryverse.

The most visceral moments in reading are the ones I wait for, so absorbing you can almost reach out and touch the taut atmosphere, and the tension of the tale resolves itself inside you. Ben’s book is full of these moments, told with a direct simplicity and metre; his words wash over you, delightful and unexpected, like a convenient sprinkler on an unbearably hot day. This writing is no inch of ivory but more a paint-with-water book, the paint inked on in defined lines, just enough, mind, and you simply add your own water to a world that becomes more vivid and real every moment, and then you wipe off the brush, or eye, if need be.

I don’t want to give too much away in this review about what you will read in these pages: I will not point out favourites because each of the stories has its own secrets at its core, and it’s how we reflect these stories on ourselves that we come to love one or another best. I will say that these pages are a pastiche of the paranormal mixed with some magic, deepened by dazzling darkness, populated with people, trees, ducks, tvs, the sea, and the breeze, so very many things and beings changing, and they morph before our eyes for good or ill.

If it’s not clear by now, this is an exhortation to people that might read this review: I recommend you get this book the minute it comes out. I’m hard on books, but I know what I like, and I love this … I knew at first reading that there was something very special in these stories. If I’ve intrigued you at all, I’d recommend you pre-order**, so the book is in your hot little hand as soon as possible – I know you will find charm, and enchantment, some anxiety, some sorrow, some sweetness, and occasionally hope here. This is a breathtakingly lovely collection of little stories, so full of nighttime and day, so spare and so fine, I cannot now imagine living my life without it, and can’t for the life of me, think why you should either.

** book arrives in stores on July 26, 2011.

in Canada to pre-order from amazon, click here
in the US to pre-order from amazon in book format (they also have kindle), click here

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