Nov 302016

Shianna Whitner



Dana Spiotta’s novel Innocents and Others captures an artist’s journey, the deterioration of friendship, and the misconduct of the lonely.  The three main characters are all so different yet Spiotta weaves their stories together wonderfully.

The book follows the lives of Meadow Mori, a rich artsy Los Angeles native, her lifelong best friend Carrie Wexler, and a woman named Jelly who uses her listening skills to get well-to-do men to fall in love with her over the phone.  The story traces their lives from the present, back to the 70’s and up to the present again.  It shows how Meadow and Carrie forged their friendship and their careers, and how the latter led them in different directions, though they held on to threads of what remained.  It also traces the path that led Jelly to a life of lies and seduction.

Meadow is an immersive type of artist who dives into her work, one project at a time and does not surface until she is either satisfied or ready to discard.  She goes from filming her best friend to filming trains to filming her new boyfriend.  It is this final thing that changes her as an artist.  In this moment she pushes someone close to her in order to improve her art.  This becomes a defining moment in Meadow’s life and raises the question:  How far must one go for their art?

Carrie is the social one.  She cares more about making people laugh and forming emotional bonds than about accolades and bigger messages.  Carrie marries and starts a family while maintaining her career as a screenwriter for female-led comedies.  While Meadow is focused solely on her career, Carrie tries to salvage what remains of their friendship.

Jelly on the other hand never had the friendship that Meadow and Carrie shared.  She has only had relationships with men that ended.  However, one very important relationship with a man named Oz, led her to phone phreaking.  This ability to manipulate tones and connect to people across the world led Jelly to forming her own phone identity and using it to build connections with men in Hollywood.

All three of these women have experienced their own highs and lows on their journeys, whether their search was for art, family, or love.  I enjoyed the depth of character that Spiotta explored with these three women.  She allows Meadow to explore the darkness within herself in a way that called everything she had ever done into question.  This sort of self examination is risky business, but in this case it was done so in a way that was evocative and emotional.  As for Carrie, she has to fight to maintain her friendship with Meadow as it falls through the cracks, and Jelly has to face her actions after years of misleading men through the art of conversation.  For these characters, the story lies in what they do to get what they want and in many cases the question is: Did they go too far?  However, no matter the answer the story itself is a ride worth taking.  Spiotta’s characterization is exceptional.  Her development of the three main characters makes the story a fast read as you turn the page and delve deeper into the lives of these intriguing women.



Innocents and Others

Dana Spiotta


Nov 232016

Susanne Parker



At the bottom of an abandoned well, in the center of a forest, two children struggle to survive. They are called Big and Small, and they are brothers. Iván Repila’s second novel, translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes, offers the English-speaking world a chance to wrestle with this existentialist allegory.

Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, life for the boys is a game of patient suffering. As in Godot, there is a God figure- a mysterious person who comes to gaze down at the children during the night, doing nothing to help them. The story is wrought with a McCarthy-esque stillness of tone and violence of imagery, because “Displays of affection aren’t called for in a world dictated by the need to survive. Love is like a vow of silence, where cruelties befitting a reptile, a prehistoric crocodile, are meted out.” That silent love is essential. As in McCarthy and Beckett’s work, motivation to go on existing in the face of extreme futility lies in Big and Small’s relationship to each other.

Big makes the laws of their new life and governs his brother with authoritarian determination. They have a small bag of food, but the food in the bag is Mother’s, he tells Small; it is not to be eaten. He drives his point home with a blow to the face and a death threat. Instead they subsist on maggots, worms, and roots, clawed from the walls of the well. Small is the deep thinker of the pair, and his spirit rebels against their reality, preferring madness. Big is the realist, the caretaker, and the doer. Big “envies Small’s indolence and self-absorption, and all the shades of grey that his world seems to contain.” Small “admires the simplicity of his brother. It must be easy to make decisions in a world with such radical contrasts, where everything is black and white.” Together they embody mankind. As their health deteriorates, Big performs a ludicrous exercise regime while Small enters the rabbit hole of his mind.

Small’s insanity is revelation. Repila uses the child’s babblings to deepen symbolism and engage with existentialist questions. Small has the absurdist preoccupation with the ineffectiveness of language, and the resulting inability to truly communicate with another person. He says, “I think no one hears our cries because they mistake us for animals. You and I haven’t noticed till now, but for days we have been talking like pigs.” Then Small endures a bout of aphasia, a medical condition which renders him unable to form coherent words.

When he recovers his powers of speech, Small reveals insight into the universality of their situation. “Is this the real world?” he asks. “Are we really children?” And then, “Is this it? Must men live within walls with no windows or doors?” Small preaches about a minority of mankind unwilling to accept the captive lifestyle. Big takes his monologues as evidence of madness, and plugs his ears with dirt, not understanding.

Repila’s use of Small as a vessel to transmit these underlying ideas is heavy-handed; he places more emphasis on the two boys as everyman figures than as real children. Small’s dialogue is often anything but childish, using complex words and rhetorical structures. Repila acknowledges this, saying “He looks with the eyes of an adult who has eaten a child and infected him with a hundred centuries of madness.” Although the artifice is obvious, it works. Small’s words connect with the narrative and give it meaning. Repila sacrifices realism for this aim, but it’s an effective sacrifice.

Time passes differently in the well; rather than numbering chapters in an orderly sequence, chapters are labeled according to the number of days the boys have spent in their prison. Big instructs Small how to commit a murder. He nurses his brother with rough tenderness through fevers and hallucinations. They play games. They tell stories- dark and vengeful fairytales. One such story reveals the source of the book’s title: A boy steals Attila the Hun’s horse, cuts off its hooves, and wears them as shoes. Wherever he steps, the land beneath his feet dies, and when he steps experimentally on human beings, those die too, in vivid color and grotesque description. Pleased with his powerful station as a ruthless destroyer, he spends his life killing, then buries the shoes in a well, guarded by two children. The tale is perhaps an attempt to endow their entrapment with purpose, as well as a portrait of the hatefulness which led to their presence there.

One would expect, given the genre, that Repila’s novel would end without resolution or comfort. However, with the brother’s culminating effort at escape, the reader finds answers to the questions seeded in previous chapters, and even sees glimpses of hope through the sorrow. It’s a satisfying conclusion that justifies the digging and interpreting required by the rest of the text. The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, while a quick read at only 108 pages, successfully conveys one interpretation of human life. It’s up to the reader to sift that interpretation through his/her personal beliefs and come to terms with the outcome.



The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

Iván Repila

Pushkin Collection



Nov 162016

Paul Michael Garrison


Howard Frank Mosher, through God’s Kingdom in particular, has drawn frequent comparisons to Mark Twain, and with this book’s rustic charm, strong sense of place, and episodic nature, it’s easy to see why. But in some respects, structurally at least, this book owes a greater debt to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Both books revolve around the coming of age of a young newspaperman who also is (or will be) a story writer. Both Anderson’s George Willard and Mosher’s Jim Kinneson seem to be favored sons of the town, frequently taken into counsel by various townsfolk, casting a wider net for stories.

While Mosher’s book is called a novel, it could more accurately be termed a collection of interconnected stories, like Winesburg, Ohio, in which the protagonist sometimes takes prominence but just as often serves as the observer or recorder to someone else’s story. In God’s Kingdom, this could be Jim’s fishing buddy/principal or a fellow player on his baseball team. The events of one chapter (or story) rarely effect (or even affect) the events in the next. For example, one chapter relates the tragic demise of one of Jim’s friends, and the next notes this occurrence only in passing. The tragedy is, in essence, contained to a single story. Perhaps the scope of the book, which takes Jim from age fourteen to the day he leaves for college, shows the fleeting impact that events have on a life.

The stories’ connective tissue comes from a traditional chronology, a unity of setting, and a tight familial cast. The other thread woven through the collection is “the trouble” in the Kinneson family’s history, which refers to how Jim’s abolitionist great-grandfather shot his best friend Pliny, an emancipated slave who served as the town’s historian. Rather than a separate story, the final chapter acts as an epilogue unraveling this historical mystery. Though consistently referenced through the stories, the mystery is not a driving force to the action of any. Because the final revelation pertains to people outside these main narratives, it isn’t truly compelling. It does, however, give the book a sense of conclusion, a commodity not to be overlooked in today’s literature, and it provides Jim Kinneson with his true birthright, a needful thing for a young man heading into a bigger world.

The frequent delving into family and personal histories along with the book’s 1950s setting suffuses the book with a feeling of nostalgia, both warm and regretful. And the book’s warmth distinguishes it sharply from Winesburg, Ohio, in which nearly every page is fraught with existential dread. Unlike George Willard, Jim Kinneson bears a deep and abiding love for his family and his home, and this is the ultimate source of the book’s warmth.

Family and place, the two elements in the book so intertwined as to almost be one. As Pliny says, “In the Kingdom, all history was Kinneson family history” (213). Kingdom Common and the surrounding forests, lakes, and rivers—the nature of rural Vermont—this is the true subject of the book. Mosher carefully renders Jim’s home, its history and beauty and even its ugliness—and the ugliness is there. Just as the book does not pass over the darkness in the Kinneson family history, it does not ignore the darkness of 1950s Vermont. The book makes much of the endemic racism of the era and of America’s settlement, but what it documents more subtly and painfully is the destructive force of petty tyranny, showing it at work in nearly every corner of small-town life—government, education, and workplace. Even with its faults, when Jim sets off for college, he grieves to leave Kingdom Common—because it’s home. Mosher has artfully built the relationship between this particular boy and this particular place so even if the reader hasn’t experienced that homesickness—though most of us have—the pain feels true. But we know going forward that Jim will carry home and its stories with him.


God’s Kingdom

Howard Frank Mosher

St. Martin’s Press

Sep 062016

Denise Duhamel



I admit that I was drawn to the title of Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement because of my own poem “Bikini Kill Villanelle.”  In it I chronicle the Spice Girls’ co-opting of the Riot Grrrl movement, in turn de-politicizing “grrrls,” de-fanging them of all those extra “r”s, rendering “Girl Power” an accessory available at the mall.  I sensed in a poetic, rather intuitive way how this happened.  But Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once gives me (and all other thinking people) the political and historical chops to understand “marketplace feminism,” a vibrant, flourishing oxymoron.  Zeisler documents the strong presence of feminism in 1970’s pop culture, with Helen Reddy’s battle cry/hit song, a feminism that captured my imagination as a teenager when I could reconcile my love of pop culture with my budding political views.  By the 1980s, the backlash was in full force with movies such as Fatal Attraction and The Witches of Eastwick.  Then 1990’s feminism came back strong with The Riot Grrrl movement only to be squashed by Camile Paglia’s A Natural History of Rape, which dropped like an anvil on all of our heads in 2000.  Slow-forward, with exacting arguments, humor, and grace, Zeisler breaks down how corporations and media have most recently embraced a surface view of feminism which is all about “empowerment” tinged with just the right amount of stink to capitalize on a woman’s self doubts and make her reach for her wallet.

Zeisler’s most hauntingly describes “the uncanny valley” of corporate feminism that uses the language of feminism to embrace exceedingly un-feminist ideas, leaving consumers a little off kilter.  She cites Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In which, using feminist rhetoric, encourages conformity to embrace corporate culture instead of dismantling that culture.  Other “uncanny” examples occur when Maxim magazine is described as “feminist” because Taylor Swift is on the cover and she says she’s feminist.  Or when The Bachelorette is deemed feminist because it allows female promiscuity. While I agree that there are indeed feminisms (plural), Ziesler makes a rather hilarious observation in which celebrities are asked their definitions of feminism, as if a definition doesn’t already exist.  She also deftly and concisely chronicles feminism’s waves (we are on wave four) and the hallmark tenets of each.

In We Were Feminists Once, Zeisler calls out the crazy ways in which feminism is portrayed in the media, all the while keeping real issues of inequality off the table.  She cites loophole feminists (those who believe they are so evolved that they don’t need feminism—think Paglia and Naomi Wolf’s “power feminism” which is posited against what she calls “victim feminism”); bizarro feminists (like Sarah Palin and the Washington Post’s assertion “Pro-life Feminism is the Future!”); trickle-down feminists (Tressie McMillan Cottom characterizing Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”); and straw feminists (like Polly Vernon who writes about the joys of getting catcalled).

In this book, feminism is also seen through the neoliberal prism that dictates a woman’s choices affect only that particular woman, thus denying the power of feminist community.   Zeisler links this to “choice feminism,” a consumer-driven feminism in which women seemingly have the choice to wear makeup or not, get Botox or not (one ad’s tagline is the faux empowering “I did it for me”), wear push-up bras or not.  These false choices are, of course, from a narrow menu of conventional beauty standards.  And we are left with a sinking sense that a woman’s “choice” in and of itself is a feminist choice so there is no way to judge or evaluate any decision as marketplace feminism flatters and privileges the individual.  The book’s analysis of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty is especially fascinating.  You may remember all those “real” Dove women in print advertising—non-models who agreed to pose in their underwear in celebration of their curvy bodies.  This “body boosterism” was embraced by many women, myself included, and I remember talking about the campaign with my friends.  But a closer look at the ad strategy revealed that Dove used it to sell a cream to battle cellulite, doing little in the end to change beauty perceptions and perhaps, most depressingly, reaffirming beauty as such an important concept to women in the first place.

Zeisler’s book will make you think and re-think feminism whose very core is at odds with capitalism.  So how can we brand feminism?  Should we even try?  She confirms and explains the strange sensation many of us had seeing Beyonce dance in front of the word FEMINIST in bright lights.  Zeisler writes, “there is a very fine line between celebrating feminism and co-opting it.”  And after reading We Were Feminists Once, I no longer have just a poetic hunch.  Instead I have a much stronger sense of where that fine line is.


We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement

Andi Zeisler

PublicAffairs Books

Jun 272016

Rae Gouirand




Harriet Kelly had other plans

for her middle son (Gene) –

namely, the law. What else

for a boy who dared to ride


a tricycle missing handlebars

down Mellon Street, come home

with an iron beam’s swipe

under his cheek, fresh crescent


letting blood? What would she

have said at his shoots, his refusal

to airbrush the ridge left by

stitches, studio producers


worrying over their posters?

And he, turning that fine stroke

to the camera, what did he hope

we’d see? The mark of the sensitive


person, the Pittsburgh kid,

the mere physical result? I’ve

seen the films, his entrances into

rooms where tabletops gleam


for his tapped dash, stamps

streaking their length, swift checks

of time steps in a long address.

Shoes impressing their effects,


he’s always there in the center,

arms extended to everyone

in the room, grin imprinted,

digging his heels under the lights.



Jun 232016


Rae Gouirand



The question is always

what I want, not what is wanting—


what end I will make of this walk

which edge I will take for myself.


Before one blue one gold

I know two things.


The same that has held me open

leaves me to see. Our brick


is cold, our shoes no longer fit.

I woke crying out for what I wanted


over and over like it snowed.

I was snow.


Looking hard at what has lasted

it tears. It tears a little as I live.


What do I remember

that second eye waiting on me.


If I could say how I got here

I would—


so whiten these folded knees

focus myself after stars


make crystal air where

air was clear. I am


a brick walk, I am

my own breath. Out those


windows snow

more than we ever asked for


beyond what lamps we burned.

I think about willing myself.


Always the question

which eye you are looking out of


which you are looking into

these moments we spend


locked or tossed

as what pulses pushes back.

Jun 202016

Kevin Welch


“Americans do disappear. All the time. They fall off the earth.”

– Patterson Wells


Cry Father is a complex novel dealing with loss and reconciliation. From the first scene we realize the world created by Benjamin Whitmer is not ours. How often do we visit a friend who is busy cooking meth while a woman is chained in the bathroom? The world is seedy – made up of drugs and alcohol, bar fights and prostitutes, guns and dangerous jobs “that attract the kind of men who get shaken out of normal life and collected at the bottom.” Patterson Wells is one of those men. He is a good man with a good heart whose life has been taken over by the need to distance himself from the pain of losing his son. This need takes him far from the world he lived before his son, Justin, died. Patterson is now in purgatory, unwilling to move back to a life he knew when Justin was alive and away from the dark side of his depression, and unable to come to terms with the father he had and the father he was.

Whitmer’s Cormac Mcarthy-esque landscape is unforgiving and the characters are frightening. A bar fight is as common as ordering a beer and a shot. Still, amidst the murder and kidnapping and drugs, Patterson never loses his desire to connect or at least to understand why he struggles to connect to the good in his life – that part he has left behind. In this dark place, Patterson is kept grounded by the memory of his son – something he accomplishes by writing incredibly intimate and revealing letters to him. Whitmer uses this technique to provide backstory and much deeper character than a simple man lashing out at God and life. Through the letters comes the understanding that all of his anger and self-destruction won’t bring his son back.

While Cry Father focuses on the darker, seedier side of depression and the lengths Patterson will go to deal with his pain, Whitmer delves into father-son relationships and how unforgiving the disappearance of a father can be. For Patterson, it was his father’s suicide. For Justin, it is Patterson’s admission in a letter that he was “wishing [he] was doing anything other than playing with [him]” that showcases his own disappearance. In both situations, reconciliation seems so far out of reach that the only answer is to drown the sorrow in anger and alcohol or die. In this way, Whitmer shows how pain can keep its knee on a man’s neck.

Ultimately, Cry Father addresses a lack of guidance and how that lack manifests in self-loathing. It questions the trust we put into father figures and forces us to come to terms with the way we ask for that trust from others. It is less about the “sins of the father” than it is the absence of a father. Whitmer’s use of a George MacDonald quote to open Cry Father seems perfectly placed.


“You must interpret the word [father] by all that you have missed in life. Every

time a man might have been to you a refuge from the wind…that was a time

when a father might have been a father indeed.”


Whitmer writes like a dragster with loose lug nuts. It’s a crazy ride which at any moment can become a fiery last breath. You learn to expect things to not just go from bad to worse, but from worse to nightmare. This is the only book I’ve read where I felt physically harmed by the end. And I want to ride again.



Cry Father

Benjamin Whitmer

Gallery Books

Jun 192016

Rae Gouirand



Box as metaphor, bowl as metaphor,

one can’t help but compare—


—I look around my house

at what it contains, which is


mostly open things, cross

the valley I live in to find the place


endlessness reforms.

Words like precise for the one,


free for the other,

and as I put myself to sleep


it seems meaningful that I should

hold the two


in that kind of conversation

few living things accommodate:


incomplete, yet outside

of us enough, something of


our inward holds,

more parallel than comparable.


Jun 142016

Lauren Heaney


In his debut poetry collection, The Crossing, Jonathan Fink explores themes surrounding the human body and mind in relation to suffering, labor, and most prominently, the human condition. He begins with a poem entitled “The Crossing” and a short explanation of a Mindanao tribe belief that, “The soul leaves the body in sleep, then returns to wake it; death occurs when the soul leaves permanently.” Whether or not you agree with this belief, I found it provided a background setting for the rest of the poems in Fink’s collection.

His main discussions of the human body are introduced in the first poem, a series of six shorter poems, titled, “The Promise of the Body is its Dream” in which he explores his interest in the structure of the body and especially the mind in relation to writer’s block. The first of these, “Vitruvian Man,” dives into a free verse description of the human body and I found that immediately Fink’s ability to contrast nature with machine shown through. He writes, “And where the compass left its mark I draw the belly of a man; how all things radiate from here, the true machine,” combining what is manmade and man himself, which is a comparison that repeated appears in the book.

This is also the first taste readers get of the various and differing writing styles presented in the rest of this poetry collection. Fink showcased his talents as a poet by including not only free verse, most common among modern poets, but also traditional villanelles and sonnets, which in my experience of reading poetry have mainly found written in the past century or earlier. Breaking from his free verse does not alter the affect his poetry has on the reader but instead strengthens the diversity in the emotions and thoughts evoked by his work.

One poem in particular that I believe captures the prominent theme of the “human condition” is his free verse poem, “The Lighthouse Keeper.” What stood out most to me was Fink’s ability to combine human labor and emotion in one poem and also from two different perspectives, while keeping it in third person. When I say this I mean that he describes the work of the keeper and his internal desires as well as the destinations and thoughts of the sailors using the light to guide them back to shore, or at least away from dangerous rocks.

In my personal favorite passage from the poem he writes,


                        The sailors, once they reach the bay,

                        Already have forgotten him again,

                        Absconding landward to their homes.

                        And what can stop the constant flux of ships

                        Unbidden and abrupt as rain?


                        With close of night descending on the bay

                        And ships forever lost in rain,

                        He gives again the thankless gift of home.


What I find intriguing about these two stanzas is Fink’s portrayal of the human mind in particular and its relation to the “human condition.” Here, the sailors are completely dependent on the lighthouse keeper in order to get home safely, and once they do, he is erased from their minds completely. On the other side of that, the keeper is aware of it, however, he continues to light the lighthouse despite any internal conflict of being underappreciated.

Another notable poem is his villanelle, “Passage,” whose title closely relates to the collection’s and general theme of passing on. What stuck out to me when first reading this were the refrains, “How quickly memory tempers into form,” and “It’s not the past, but passing to be mourned.” Not only are these two lines beautifully written, but they sum up the Fink’s “human condition” and suffering themes as they both express mortality and the realization of a temporary existence. When it comes to loss, whether of a person or thing, Fink’s second refrain comments on the human nature of living in the past once someone has died and mourning all the times that are now gone and how it is the wrong aspect to focus on. Rather than stay in a past we can not fix or bring back, we should focus on the present and how to move on. He writes,


                        While some widow waking in a storm,

                        Extends her arm where absent darling lay,

                        How quickly memory tempers into form.


Which I believe is a beautiful, though sad, passage on the realization of mortality and my favorite inclusion of his first refrain. It shows the tragic toll death can have on loved ones of the departed as their memory sometimes takes over during their grieving so they do not feel alone or that they now have to live without that person or thing.

Lastly, the final poem included in Fink’s, “The Crossing,” is the “Conflagration and Wage: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911,” which is written in the same form as the first poem, “The Promise of the Body is its Dream.” Here, he brilliantly breaks down the historical into 18 small poems that create a timeline in which the fire took place, from the mindset of the workers in the factory to the reactions of people observing the fire from the street. He starts with “Arrival” and “The First Day” where he describes a girl who works at the factory being dropped off, though it is not clear if it is at the start of the day when the fire took place. One of the more emotional inclusions is the fourth poem, “Letter From a Young Woman to Her Mother,” where Fink puts himself in the mind of one of the girls who is homesick but has to continue to support her family, and writes “I see you standing in the doorway to my room, but even in my dreams your voice is gone.” After these beginning poems, he moves on into when the fire begins and strategically changes perspectives within his poems as seen with “Samuel Levine, a Machine Operator, Escapes Through the Elevator Shaft,” and “Images from the Street III,” once again showing his masterful writing talent.


The Crossing

Jonathan Fink

Dzanc Books

Jun 102016

Julia Stone


Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres is a dark, action-packed novel that reads like a fast-paced screenplay. Published in 2013, this “western noir” set in the gutters of morality is reminiscent of AMC’s “Breaking Bad”; except, instead of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s mentor-mentee relationship, we witness the unlikely partnership between Sheriff Jimmy Mondale and semi-retired drug lord, Chowder Thompson. The other leading member of this twisted cast is Terry Hickerson, a low-life who robs local convenience stores, gets wasted on the regular, and blackmails a gay priest.

Terry, Chowder, and Jimmy are all fathers, which adds an unexpected family dynamic to the otherwise violent and crude novel. We see three fathers trying to keep reign over their children, while also managing their own hectic, criminal lives. Chowder, a meth kingpin and mastermind, is the only one who is not divorced. He and his wife share a surprisingly healthy relationship. Although he and his daughter have disputes, they still have a decent level of respect for one another. Jimmy, the “good guy” sheriff who gets mixed up with the meth enterprise, struggles more than Chowder to maintain strong relations with his family, often feeling distant and isolated. Meanwhile, Terry instills the same “values” in his son that he cares about in his own life: sex, drugs, and money. Terry’s son has respect for him, despite his father’s twisted values and his parents’ separation. Ayres illustrates that fatherhood does not follow a prescribed set of rules, nor does it always coincide with morality. He shows us that what we expect is not always the case; a drug lord can have a better relationship with his family than a sheriff.

The novel jumps from character to character; each short section is titled Mondale, Chowder, or Terry. At first, the reader may be confused about how these three storylines relate, but as the plot develops, everything becomes clearer. Ayres’ choice to use third-person narration was wise because it keeps the reader more detached, as if the actions were being shown on-screen. If Ayres had written the novel in first-person, the characters’ voices would have gotten in the way of the action. Instead, the reader gets to infer the characters’ motivations through subtle glimpses of feeling, rather than being guided hand-in-hand through all of their thought processes.

Through this entangled web of ethically perverse characters, Ayres blurs the line of good versus evil, white versus black, leaving you to contemplate the gray “muck” of humanity. By throwing punch after punch of familial struggles and gut-wrenching dilemmas, Ayres keeps you invested and builds up suspense for an unpredictable end. The use of dramatic irony in Peckerwood is very effective. In a way, you become the “blackmailer” as you learn all of the dirty details and gossip surrounding the characters’ lives: the crimes they commit, the lies they tell, and the secrets they keep. The characters may not know what disaster is headed for them, but you do, and you just can’t look away. Like the characters, you will feel a sense of “There’s no turning back now,” as you become engrossed in Ayres’ vulgar and ruthless depiction of corrupt, rural America.

Peckerwood evokes a spirit of the Wild West with its rugged, outlaw standoffs and dramatic one-liners. When Jimmy finds out that Terry is about to turn in his partner Chowder to the police, he looks around himself and realizes “that this land was once the wild west. And that it still was.” (182). Through dramatic standoffs and a struggle for power in an underprivileged urban world, Ayres recalls the western genre: the motivation for conquest of the untamed American frontier. The characters attempt to create order in their complicated criminal pursuits, just as characters in the western genre attempt to order the chaos surrounding unclaimed land. For Terry, this means gaining power over men of authority, such as manipulating the rich priest through blackmail or turning in Chowder for arrest. Chowder and Jimmy try to create a sense of order by staying on the down low, while reaping the benefits of their profitable drug empire.

Ayres also uses wordplay, which adds symbolism and depth to his writing style. The title itself is a slang term for a redneck. Peckerwood is “woodpecker” reversed. It refers more specifically to the red-bellied woodpecker, which has a patch of red on the back of its head and neck. The woodpecker itself is considered a bother or a nuisance, much like Terry’s intrusive and meddlesome role in the novel. We see how Ayres incorporates wordplay when Chowder says to Jimmy, “As a man with my own family, I sympathize. If you want the peckerwood chopped down, something can be arranged.” (140).

The term “peckerwood” also has a more profane association to the word “pecker,” which coincides with the abundance of swearing and vulgarity in the novel. When Chowder breaks into Terry’s home, he looks at Terry “sleeping like innocence. Innocence trying to stuff busted fingers down the front of its pants” (187). In this crude image, Terry, the redneck, the peckerwood, displays his lack of “innocence” by trying to touch his “pecker” with his mangled, injured hands from a previous standoff with Jimmy. Ayres manages to weave in “read-between-the-lines” symbolism hidden behind the obscenities, transforming low-life vulgarity into worthwhile literature.



Jedidiah Ayres

231 pages. Broken River Books, 2013, $14.95