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Freshwater Boys Review

28 Dec Book Reviews

Freshwater Boys by Adam Schuitema

Delphinium: $13.99 Paperback, $25.99 Hardcover

Reviewed by Mark Derks

If you read Adam Schuitema’s debut collection Freshwater Boys over the course of a single night while working as a bouncer in a small southern college town, as I did, you may find that you garner a very particular sort of attention—maybe not the kind you were anticipating when you set out to traverse the book’s 240 pages. Over the course of the night I explained that Freshwater Boys really had nothing to do with being gay and that connections to Lolita were, at best, imagined. “The thing,” I said to marginally interested strangers and acquaintances who’ve never had a sober conversation with me, “is the book doesn’t need any of that.” The stories in Freshwater Boys are tightly crafted emotional capsules. They’re sweet little pills that kick with meaning when they hit the stomach.

Take for example the volume’s second story, “Sand Thieves,” which riffs on several of the book’s recurring themes: youth and maturity, the nature of right and wrong, familial relationships, and the looming presence of Michigan’s Big Lakes. Right away we’re introduced to Uncle Lucien, the character around whom the story turns. Every summer, because of a friendship with the narrator’s grandfather (now deceased) Uncle Lucien joins a trio of sisters and their children at a cottage in the north of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Because of his friendship with the narrator’s grandfather, Uncle Lucien has stolen sand from the nearby Duck Lake State Park—glacial sand from the shores of Lake Michigan—and created for his friend an admirable beach at the cottage. Without the grandfather present, tensions between the youthful (but male role-model-less) boys, their mothers, and the faux Uncle escalate to the point where Lucien, because of the mistreatment of a fish by the boys, causes Terry to bash the back of his head on the prow of a canoe. The mothers, in a rush of vindication, banish Uncle Lucien from the cottage for good. The moment is beautiful not only for its drama, but for its emotional power and for the dexterity of the narration. The narrator describes Uncle Lucien leaving in his beat up old car:

I heard him start the Duster and pull out onto the dirt road. When it happened, I figured he was heartbroken for having to leave. But now I think he wrote us off—wrote the cottage off—the second he started his car. Fuck the white pines. Fuck the horseshoe pit. Terry’s blood? Fuck Terry’s blood—it was less than the blood of a smashed horsefly.

After Lucien’s banishment the sisters and their children agree to return to the cottage a week later and find that all of Lucien’s effort to build and maintain the beach over the years has been completely reversed. Where once waves lapped on fine, white, glacial sand; now, “All the soft sand was gone, leaving a scar of roots, dark dirt, and a gaping mouth in the earth that the lake began to fill. He left us a lagoon.”

Like in Henry James, the structures—the symmetries and complications—of these stories are readily apparent. They’re like houses that aren’t afraid to bare the studs beneath the drywall, that see no shame in revealing the insulation tucked into the cracks around the window. But to appreciate these stories solely for their symmetries and construction is to miss their real importance. By laying the connections baldly before us, Schuitema is expecting us to examine the interstices of the characters and their morality and the ways in which this place, Michigan and its lakes, informs the dramas played out within its confines. And Freshwater Boys is replete with drama. There are deaths. There are spiritual rebirths. There are mystic deer traveling through cities. There are hermits. There are kidnappings. But all of these dramas are told with intense humanity and a sense that growing up—living, raising children—can never be winnowed or whittled to a single truth, but only complicated by the interaction of a boy or a man with his home and the people he loves. Like the narrator at the end of “Sand Thieves” Schuitema hopes that we will fill our trunks with Lake Michigan sand and “[roar] through the state park at dawn,” and in a final gesture that serves not to explain the narrator’s feelings about the hole left at the cottage, but only complicate it, we will leave “the rangers arriving to an already smaller beach.”

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Two Journal Reviews: failbetter and Drunken Boat

28 Dec Literary Journals

by Laura Nye


The Latest from failbetter

failbetter is always open for fiction, poetry and visual art, “that which is at once original and personal. When choosing work to submit, be certain that what you have created could only have come from you.”  I love failbetter’s confidence with The Huffington Post in their status as an electronic publication, translating traditional literary print-journal content to a clean, efficient, text-based  blog format. Contributors are published on the website in real time as opposed to being fit into the package of an issue, appealing to submitter and reader alike and earning a readership to dwarf those of printed journals.

As of late, Alexandra Chasin’s short fiction piece “You Loved The Morphine” narrates like an intravenous chemical, voiced with a vibrant tension hinging on the line, “How having to attend to me would drive her, and to what.”  Caren Beilen’s “Art in Relationship” traces an artist’s fragile complex of creation and self-concept with a significant other vicariously fueling and disturbing her creative process.

Kristi Maxwell’s two poems, “Game 1 (36 words[=36 lines])” and “Game 3 (37 words[=37 lines])” were borne from a word game called Royalty; each first shows readers a transcript of a round of the game, then uses words garnered from the game in a poem. The poems indicate play-words with capital letters, altering the natural scansion of its language with echoes, repetition and variations of mutations turning up inventive rhythms and phrases.

The Latest from Drunken Boat Issue 12

Drunken Boat’s approach to online publishing differs from failbetter’s by organizing content into contextual folio-features which are given unique open calls for submissions. Currently DB is looking for submissions for an upcoming Bernadette Mayer tribute folio, as well as upcoming issue 13’s “First Peoples, Plural” folio, which will feature “media by indigenous people worldwide.”  Along regular fiction, poetry and non-fiction folios, the current issue offers “Celtic Twilight:  21st Century Irish-Americans on Eugene O’Neill,” “Freedom & Belonging:  Short Short Fiction,” the collaborative and genre-transcending “Desire & Interaction,” and a short tribute to Franz Wright.

Robert M. Dowling gave me exactly what I wanted in his introduction to O’Neill’s folio:  “My intent with “Celtic Twilight” is to take a step out of the academic echo-chamber, where I’ve lived for years, and listen to voices unheard from in traditional O’Neill studies.” Drunken Boat is strengthened throughout with an academic precision and agility that is disarmed from the university arena and put to work, instead, on the playful and collaborative online stage.

Although flash-fiction is a developing genre I’ve not much explored, I was happy to get further acquainted with Mikael de Lara Co’s “Man Finds Crow,” which seems to balance just enough narrative with a delicate and abstract payload, delivering what fiction editor Deborah Marie Poe dubs “magic in motion.”  My other favorite is Kristen Nelson’s segmented work “Ghosty,” complimented with illustrations by visual artist Noah Saterstrom. His self-titled website, linked in the work’s preface, showcases other literary collaborations among a large body of work.

“Desire & Interaction” mixes the literary with the digital, the evolution of text with video, sound, and interactivity. Contributions like Jon Satrom’s iPhone App PURRFLUX and collective Squidsoup’s “Bugs” are sure to jostle the literary audience with refreshing bemuse. Drunken Boat flouts a dedication to the electronic venue’s flexibility with incredibly inventive collaborations;  this was my favorite folio, and the whole thing is quite worthwhile, but among my favorites are Roxann Carter & Braxton Solderman’s “Legend,” whose text and portraiture develop, disappear and converge through concentric pop-up windows, Chris Funkhouser and Amy Hufnagel’s  “Thank You,” a video of curious text revealed through soap bubbles, and molleindustria’s existential flash game “every day the same dream” proving that digital meaning is legitimate meaning. I’ve never felt so creeped by my own pressing of the direction and space bar keys. Think about it.

By far its largest, Drunken Boat’s poetry folio aids verse with visuals and recordings. Issue 12 features interesting experiments, “expansions . . . conversations.”  James Byrne’s “April 14th 1930”   speaks to Vladimir Mayakovsky, Amaranth Borsuk & Gabriela Juaregui’s “Hypertrope” readings, Philip Rush’s “Morning stole upon the night,” Amy McNamara’s “lampblack” and Sandra Doller’s “They Go To Bed With Gilda,” and Edward Folger’s “The Genome of the Endangered Sestina,” which ingeniously innovates form by placing the text of its allusions a click away, achoring its lineage, content and livelihood with undeniable accessibility. The poem epitomizes my trust in Drunken Boat’s selection of poetic stylings—it is its own key..

The small feature folio on Franz Wright includes collaborative readings labeled “Ill Lit,” and his brilliant poem “The Writing” deftly encapsulates all writers’ incessant dream of good work, work that really works, as he and countless other contributors, editors and readers continue to shape Drunken Boat into a  soberingly impressive reality.

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Death is Not an Option Review

14 Dec Book Reviews

Death Is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca

W.W. Norton $23.95 Hardcover $14.95 Paperback

Reviewed by Mark Derks

The word dexterous comes to mind when I think of Suzanne Rivecca’s fiction in Death Is Not an Option, not just because she demonstrates her mastery of point of view by running the gamut of first, second, and third person in these stories, nor because the voice of the pieces ranges from precocious teenager to jaded if insecure professor to well meaning though ultimately destructive elementary school teacher, but because in these stories she creates compelling, self-actualized women who confront their wounding pasts but recognize that in doing so they risk the equilibrium of their present. Her characters totter at the edge of the precipice. They grasp after tree roots while scaling the cliff. In doing so they remind us how tenuous our hold on life and sanity is, how lucky—how miraculous—it is still to be standing.

Take for example her story “Consummation,” which is told as a letter to an unknown doctor. The first line, “Twenty-seven years ago, when you were a surgical intern at Bingham Medical Center in Paw Paw, Michigan, you saved my father’s life,” drops us into an ongoing reality and suggests a trio of stories—the speaker’s and the doctor’s and the father’s—that we’ll be involved in. It’s a daring first line, one that offers no explanations, no setup, not even a consistent point of view. Right away we’re drawn into a tale of life and death. Only later are the epistolary conceit and the nature of that high stakes drama revealed. The stakes are not high for the father or the doctor though, they’re only high for the speaker, who inhabits the story’s present. In precise and evocative prose Rivecca gives us the young woman’s dilemma, the slope she’s struggling up though it might just be easier to let go and slide down and down through the scree:

Why do I want so badly for you to understand what you saved?

And what, in so doing, you gave me: a life sentence of uneasy love for a man I used to fear. I hope I can write a good eulogy. I hope I can forgive myself for every dark wish I ever had. I hope that, secretly, he never really loved me. I hope I die before he does. I hope I never have to see him suffer. And I hope that someday I can say thank you for disappearing and thank you for not responding with a letter saying you remember that day in great detail and pointing out all the things I got wrong. Every person who lives a life eventually starts to make it all up: not just the past but the future too. The only thing you can’t create is the present, while it’s happening—you going about your day, Doctor, not knowing what I’m thinking, and God knows where you are: you could be saving someone, you could be killing someone, you could be breaking the news of a death, you could be filling out charts, or you could be slicing open a person as they sleep, skin flaps pulled back like pages in a book, your silver hummingbird dipping into a dark mass of pomegranate-red tissue and coming back out, that simple, that improbably facile, and depositing in a crescent-shaped silver basin the pulpy lethal bit that doesn’t belong. I’d want it sealed in a jar and given to me: the thing that necessitated such an opening.

Here Rivecca gives us a glimpse of the emotional terrain she typically navigates: the victim with a complicated relationship to the violence done to them. Almost all the women in her stories keep that “lethal bit” close. They own it, as most of us do, and though these stories hint at just how long the climb is and how far the fall, they never measure it. They never tell us in feet or in miles how far these women have to go, because, of course, not even Rivecca knows that. These mountains are as tall and as long as life. Rivecca reminds that death, after all, is akin to the ultimate cop out.

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