Book Shorts

Brief takes on authors' first efforts.


by Clay McLeod Chapman (Theia, $21) WHAT DO a jealous ventriloquist dummy, a pumpkin-humping teen, an old woman warding off a fox attack, a Bear-Scout-cum-cannibal, and a starving farm girl have in common? A lot more than you'd probably think. All these individuals get to play narrator in Clay McLeod Chapman's Rest Area, a collection of 20 short stories told in monologue. They're also victims of cruel fates or keepers of a dark secret, the vehicles upon which Chapman constructs his frequently macabre tales. Ordinary folks in extraordinary situations is his preferred domain; Chapman clearly delights in the details of their unusual predicaments, and his enthusiasm makes stories like "Fox Trot," "Second Helping," and "Bladder Companion" an awful lot of fun to read. The most striking similarity among Rest Area's stories, though, is the way they're told. Only one tale actually takes place in front of a campfire, but all of them have the folksy flavor of an old-fashioned campsite yarn. Because Chapman allows his disparate characters to speak in nearly identical voices, however, the effect becomes a bit tiresome, particularly after digesting several stories in one sitting. The book's standard diction consists of lots of choppy sentences and questions. The opening paragraph of the first story offers the basic template: "Carolina plates. You guys have come far. Where you heading? Out Midwest? Lord, that's a long haul. You've got to be nomadic to drive all that way, nowadays." The result, sadly, is that the jealous ventriloquist dummy, the pumpkin-humping teen, the old woman warding off a fox attack, the Bear-Scout-cum-cannibal, and the starving farm girl all become relatively indistinguishable in the end—a fairly neat trick in itself if you think about it, but surely not the one the author was aiming for. Paul Fontana THE LAKE OF DEAD LANGUAGES

by Carol Goodman (Ballantine Books, $23.95) I SUCKED down Donna Tartt's first novel, The Secret History, like an Everclear shot in a game of quarters. Carol Goodman's debut novel, The Lake of Secret Languages, is drawing comparison to Tartt's, but it's not nearly as quick or as mind-altering an experience. There are similarities—they're both set in privileged scholastic environments; both narrators are outsiders let into a special, troubled clique, though not nearly as much as they think or hope; and there's something weird about the Latin teacher. Goodman sets an appropriately spooky, frequently snowbound stage for the gothic tale of Jane Hudson. The newly separated mother of preschooler Olivia has never gotten over the drowning suicides of both her high-school roommates and first love (who would?), but out of desperation she returns to the working world as the Heart Lake School for Girls' Latin teacher. But something wicked's in the chilly Adirondack air and water, and the events of 20 years ago begin to repeat themselves. Before you can say carpe diem, new bodies are turning up in the lake. The mystery is page-turning, but it doesn't take Sophocles to stay a step ahead of the hapless heroine. She's one of those irritating scary-movie characters who can't recognize the nose in front of her face, literally. Even harder to forgive is that in the hopes of unraveling the mystery of her past, which hasn't appeared to bother her much until she thrusts herself back into it, she readily leaves her daughter with a questionable ex-husband. Goodman tries to explain her vapidity away by giving her a miserable childhood, but her dim character dooms the novel. The Lake of Dead Languages certainly won't become a classic, but it's a breezy thriller full of useful-to-know Latin phrases. I wish I'd known this one during my quarters days: Nunc est bibendum. Time for drinking. Audrey Van Buskirk THE TROUBLE WITH CATHERINE

by Andes Hruby (Dutton, $23.95) IN Catherine Lacey's world, big girls don't cry—they keep a stiff upper lip, drink away the pain, and occasionally throw heavy objects. Lacey is a 29-year-old New Yorker and fishmonger's daughter who's picked up the family trade and loves her work, if not her personal life. In short-story writer Andes Hruby's debut novel, the protagonist faces the conundrum of every single girl staring down the barrel of 30: to hold out for the prince or get the hell down the aisle before it's too late with any man who'll have them. Catherine's got a decent guy, right-side-of-the-tracks lawyer Steve; but as their wedding day draws closer, it becomes clear that their differences are more than a flower-strewn ceremony can fix. Unfortunately, with Catherine's take-it-like-a-man toughness, it's hard not to agree with the supposedly unworthy Steve, who after one particular blowout asks in exasperation, "Can't you just back off after 5 o'clock and let me wear the penis?" Fans of works like Kate Christensen's In the Drink will eat the author's men-come-and-go-but-red-wine-is-forever shtick right up, and Bridget Jones-style singletons still hungry for more will probably embrace their latest fictional counterpart. The romance-gone-wrong plotline is well fleshed out by Catherine's complex relationship with her distant parents, her supportive, if equally troubled, friends, and her work (Hruby manages to make the politics of raw tuna distribution actually pretty interesting). Unfortunately, though she's obviously a gifted and observant writer, the author too often displays a tin ear for dialogue, turning out conversations that sound far more like a writer's exposition than a human being's off-the-cuff thoughts. The out-of-character ending, however, with its laughably implausible romantic deus ex machina, will only please those who can't bear to close a novel without seeing it sealed with a kiss. Leah Greenblatt VISITS FROM THE SEVENTH

by Sarah Arvio (Knopf, $22) WHO ARE the visitors of this debut volume of poetry, and what is the "Seventh" from whence they come? Some unearthly hybrid of bad houseguest, muse, and cajoling, maddening voices in the poet's head, the visitors employ the author variously as medium, scribe, and plaything for their caprice. They seem to dwell in the realm of restless spirits, not in midnight hallways but up in the clouds, "cavorting idle across the skyscape,/pink, pellucid and cloud-streaked," looking for opportunities to occupy the blank page, to guide the poet's pen. And the poems are theirs—to a degree that occasionally grows tiresome, both to the poet and to the reader. The voice of the visitors is generally one collective chorus, their comments set in quotation marks sprawling across entire pages; they barely let the poet get a word in edgewise, stopping her on the street or waking her in the night to transcribe their teasing, metaphysical views on her love life, her attitude toward the visitors (they are narcissistic, indeed), even her poetry. They deign to answer her questions, at one point revealing their origin when asked about the senses: "'The sixth is sex, silly. The seventh is/our sense, the one we sometimes share with you,'" they say. But are "they" to be believed? They condescend to the poet, toy with her, and lead her astray; as much as they help her explore her inner and outer worlds, "they want to see you injured or chagrined,/so they can chortle and vent." She tries to "shake them off," but they are her "source." It is quite a self-conscious conceit Arvio constructs, invoking Dante, Whitman, Dickinson, and more to ground and please her demanding spirits. The ethereal voices are relentless, and brief respites from them are a relief, as in the contemplative, bitter "Love." There is depth here, and grace; Arvio's future poetry is to be looked forward to, visitors or not. Bethany Jean Clement

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