Monday, September 27, 2010

Darkly Comedic, Family Dysfunction with a Twist: a review of "The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo," by Darrin Doyle


(published in The Manhattan Mercury 1/24/2010)



          If it's true that literature is an on-going conversation – a conceit too often repeated to be attributed to anyone – then before discussing a work of fiction, one should first consider a work that preceded its creation. This is actually much less contrived than it sounds, for when hearing of a new novel, say one that takes place in a single day, who of us doesn't think, “Ah, Woolf,” or “Ah, Joyce,” and then begin making comparisons?

          I wasn't 10 pages into Darrin Doyle's new novel, when I thought to myself, “Ah, Donald Barthelme.” In particular, I was reminded of his story, “I Bought a Little City” (Ain't it Pretty), in which a wealthy man purchases Galveston, Texas. This isn't, in reality, a thing one can do, but that doesn't stop the protagonist from telling, in plainest detail, what he did with his new acquisition:
“I went out on the streets then and shot six thousand dogs. This gave me great satisfaction and you have no idea how wonderfully it improved the city for the better...Then I went down to the Galveston News, the morning paper, and wrote an editorial denouncing myself as the vilest creature the good God had ever placed on earth.”

           We accept the circumstance, that he purchased Galveston, because it's immediately presented, and also because the story is interesting, well-written, and engaging. This is how Doyle's narrative works as well.

          In the fictitious “Note From the Editor,” we are informed that from 1997 to 1999, the beautiful and famous eatist Audrey Mapes ate the city of Kalamazoo, Mich. The text of the book is supposedly a compilation of hand-written notes jotted down by her sister McKenna, notes purchased by D. M. Doyle. “There was no cohesion to the random jottings. No story,” the editor explains. “So Mr. Doyle sculpted it, trimmed it, molded it; like Dr. Frankenstein, he stitched together the necrotic segments in order to breath life into the rantings of this decidedly melancholy and plain woman.

          The narrative then follows. Each chapter is short, easily digestible, if you will, and resembles a cleaned up note, one given both a thematic and narrative arc. They don't follow chronologically, but instead jump around, spending time with each member of the Mapes family: Grandma Pencil with her religious judgment of Audrey's obsession; Audrey's brother, Toby, whose own excessive eating aims at bulking up, at achieving the perfect body; her mother, Misty, listless but loving; her father Murray, a factory worker by day and inventor by night (his patents include, “the Clock Hat, the Squeezable Survival Kit...the Collapsible Ukulele with Hairbrush”); and of course Audrey herself, stunningly beautiful despite her birth defects – an iron stomach and two stumps instead of feet.

          The finale is known from the beginning – “she was the gentlest earthquake, the softest tsunami” – therefore, Doyle shows us the path as opposed to constantly pushing us toward the destination.

          As a metaphor, the possibilities are endless. A girl who can't sate her appetite for nonfood could be a stand in for obesity, alcoholism, sex and/or drug addiction, the lifelong search for love, faith, family. The story of Kalamazoo, its rise and fall, growth then total destruction, could parallel the fate of any number of Michigan cities. To investigate these any further, however, would be purely academic. We are concerned with the simple question, “Is it worth reading?”

          I answer a resounding, “Yes!” Not because it is profoundly meaningful – it is – but because the story is sensational, worth telling, and executed with a concision and clarity that brings us into the fold of the narrative. Perhaps even better than the descriptions of her eating, are the reactions of the townspeople:

          “All they could do was stare. It was shocking, deeply unreal. Physically numbing. Narcotic...and at the same time it seemed, for lack of a better word, expected. Comforting.

          “Of course, their mind-blown minds said. Of course there is a shapely woman with the face of an angel standing in my living room, gorging herself on my coffee table. Why wouldn't there be?”

In a climate of literary plots that tell of “The time nothing didn't happen,” Doyle is audacious enough to write about “The time something did happen!” I believe this is a positive trend taking place in American fiction, and I applaud him.

          As this is a time for predictions, I would like to lay down one of my own: The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo will win the Pulitzer Prize this year. If it doesn't, this will simply be because the committee either didn't read it, or because they understood and enjoyed it too well.

          Buy, borrow or steal this book; you won't be sorry.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Brain Science

"It's not like it's rocket surgery," Walker says, and I laugh at this butchering of an idiom I know so well, even though he's misremembering it on purpose just to make me laugh. I'm letting him make me laugh.

Read the rest at Hobo Pancakes: http://www.hobopancakes.com/2011/03/03/graph-garden-2/

Joking

I don't care much for Joking, which is not to say that I don't care at all for Joking, just that I don't care much. I would say, if I had to say, that I care for Joking about as much as I care for a cousin, not a close cousin, one I have a genuine friendship with, but rather one for whom I feel the perfunctory kind of love that one must feel for family, no matter how trivial the connection is.

Read the rest at Cavalier Literary Couture: http://www.cavalierliterarycouture.com/online/pg1/3%20Short%20Pieces/

One Week

I have had a headache for one whole-week. Not four quarter-weeks with three reprieves of a few days. Nor even two half-weeks with one reprieve of a few hours. No, I have had a single headache, unremittingly, for the length of one week.

Read the rest at Cavalier Literary Couture: http://www.cavalierliterarycouture.com/online/pg1/3%20Short%20Pieces/

The Money

I make the money. Not the money you think of first, the obvious money. They wouldn't need me for that.

When I worked at the local newspaper, I gathered up the misprints, the ones that ran before they stopped the press, and sold them for three bucks a pop, which is a killing. Misprints like, “Spacious 2br apt, enclosed patio with huge dick,” and “Mayor outlaws unleashed poets,” and “Local Lesbians Come out to Audition.” That last one ran lede-story on Sunday. One thousand papers and I sold them all.

Read the rest at Cavalier Literary Couture: http://www.cavalierliterarycouture.com/online/pg1/3%20Short%20Pieces/

Baby Carrot

In my choppings, I come across a tiny carrot amidst the baby carrots. The runt if you will.

Automatically, I roll it toward me to cut it julienne for my wife's lunchtime salad, but then, conscientiously, I halt. Over years of cooking, I've handled innumerable vegetables, full-sized and baby-sized, but never have I seen one so vulnerable.

Read the rest at elimae: http://elimae.com/2010/08/Carrot.html

Bear Costume

He ran over our elderly neighbor Lenard, but not on purpose, or at least not as far as we could tell; there wasn't any yelling, I mean, and he didn't look happy when he got out of the car, though who could really tell through a bear costume. For all we knew, he had left on the bear hat -- that's what it a was, a kind of all-inclusive hat -- just long enough to let a victorious smirk melt from his face.

Read the rest at elimae: http://elimae.com/2010/08/Carrot.html

War of Supposes

My teenage son should not be allowed freedom of speech, and this I thoroughly believe. When I ask him about the lawn, specifically the three-inch deep tire tracks, he supposes his truck, which is really my truck, veered off the driveway. He did not steer it into the lawn, but he supposes it must have done it all on its own.

Read the rest at Bartleby-Snopes: http://www.bartlebysnopes.com/stevenmiller.htm

Visiting Grandma

"There's a drug dealer across the hall from me," she says as soon as we sit down to play scrabble.

"Grandma, you think all black people are drug dealers," I say.

"No, no, this is a nice Jewish man."

Read the rest at Bartleby-Snopes: http://www.bartlebysnopes.com/stevenmiller.htm

A Poem of Epic Scale which I've Attempted a Dozen Times Before and Failed Miserably

-for Rachel Molander

The walls in there were white, just like in the films,
but so are walls in most new, apartment buildings.
I shared a room with two people far less
crazy than me and one far crazier.
I couldn't write. I couldn't read.
An angel, as natural and lovely
as any starfish, came each evening at 6
o'clock and this alone I thought happily
of between her departure and the tranquilizers'
arrival; she more therapeutic than any chemical.
Mostly, nothing happened, unlike any film.
I watched a lot of music television,
and played ping-pong in the morning coffee rush.
It was decaf; they trusted us like children—
not at all. Mostly, I ate meals that
were better than I'd expected, asked about
shrinks who were largely absent, and managed to
escape (all right, I was released) prematurely.

Published Spring 2010 at Breath & Shadow