of Burning Madness by
(The Drill Press)
You don’t have to turn many pages in the dictionary to get from “sexy” to “skanky”, and the two words are close bedfellows in the real world as well. Take off a little too much, talk a little too dirty, and what was tantalizing becomes tawdry. The cover of John-Ivan Palmer’s debut novel, Motels of Burning Madness, showing a cigarette about to be put out in a g-string, seems to promise a steamy romance novel. But turn a few pages and here, again, you go from sexy to skanky—and a bit beyond as well, to sordid. Palmer obviously intended this. He seems to delight in pulling the drapes of the seedy motel room wide, exposing the seamy underside of the sex industry—the strippers, the porno stars, the mud wrestlers and the prostitutes—to the unwelcome light of day.
The story is narrated, in a deadpan first person, by Huey, a male dancer in Los Angeles. Huey is attracted to older women, and earns extra money playing the gigolo for some of his more important clients; but his great love is Gloria, the woman who works at the Donut Hole near the shady La Brea Hotel where he lives. When one of his clients dies suspiciously in her Malibu mansion, Huey, afraid of police scrutiny, flees LA as a member of the Prime Cuts Male Dance Revue. After he reunites with Gloria on the road, the story travels even farther afield, taking in mud wrestling, boxcar jumping, and a backwater in rural Kentucky called Clown Town, in a downward spiral of bizarre circumstances. Huey never seems to think about his future, or what he really wants, but passively observes the debauchery around him with a Hunter S. Thompson-like detachment:
The club was called the Real McCoy. Two for one drinks. Women only. It was a small, indifferent crowd. They’d been hit with so many male dance shows lately that the novelty had worn off.
When it came to table work, the women that night ignored us. If we persisted, they literally pushed us away, sneering “creep” or “get lost.” As I approached a table, flirting and grinding my hips, one woman stood up and made a thumbs down gesture. Everyone applauded. Following my set, someone pulled open Casey’s g-string and spit an ice cube.
Hotels of Burning Madness is hilariously demented in parts, and it has the fascination of a carnival sideshow; as I watched Huey navigate from cheap hotel rooms to dive bars to an airplane filled with corpses, I felt a certain dis-ease—a nagging doubt that it was not our male dancer protagonist who was screwed up, after all, but America. The ending wraps up a bit too quickly, the whole fiasco with the police seeming to evaporate into thin air; but more important than the narrative here is Palmer’s raw portrait of the darker side of pleasure. Though he wrote the novel in the ‘80s, it still has the smell of fresh paint; perhaps, indeed, it will shock more in 2011 than it would have in 1989, American sensibilities having taken a Puritan turn of late. As for John-Ivan Palmer, although he was the son of a magician (see his memoir, “Necessity in the House of Illusion”) and now works as a stage hypnotist, as a writer, at least, disillusion is his forte.
- Joel Van Valin
Landscape with Fragmented Figures by Jeff Vande Zande
(Bottom Dog Press)
Eudora Welty once remarked the the best way to know the world is to first understand every facet of your own backyard. Jeff Vande Zande's novel Landscape with Fragmented Figures is proof that the contemporary novel can still impressively marry regionalism and universalism. Unlike so many small press titles that seem to strive for arch banality, Vande Zande's book is a story with heart and balls, a rendering of people on the edge, all drawn with close attention to the American Midwest setting that is such an intrinsic part of their story.
The story is essentially that of two brothers, Ray and Sammy Casper, coming to terms with old family resentments in the wake of their father's death. Ray is an art professor at a small Michigan college, estranged from the other Casper men. His is the classic story of class distinction. Drawing on his own childhood disappointments, Ray discovers meaning through his art, a way of comprehending his place in the world, a way out from a stolid household. However, through the years, Ray has settled into a middle aged complacency. His muse has deserted him (literally, in the case of his decamped girlfriend) and he is left with an existential emptiness that is punctuated when he learns of his father's death early in the book.
Enter Sammy Casper, the other half of this domestic equation. Sammy is the brother who stayed behind, who became a wrench turner in the same Ohio factories that his father worked for a lifetime. After a decade apart, the brothers realize that they can no longer ignore each other. When Ray sees his brother has no future in the squalid apartment he shared with their father, he impulsively invites him to move into his middle class suburban home. The novel then becomes a reckoning of past and present, love and envy, and perhaps some degree of redemption.
While Landscape with Fragmented Figures is a realistic treatment of how foreign the idea of family can feel, it is also a romantic exploration of the power art has to give real meaning to a person's life. Aesthetics are not treated as merely theoretical. Instead, the pursuit of beauty is a way of reaching a real selfhood and knowing how an individual can find peace and fulfillment in what seems to be an increasingly indifferent existence. The struggle to find this truth in art and life is what drives the narrative, the tragically heroic venture to do something worthwhile. Ray is the artistic figure, trying to shake himself awake, to discover something that is his own:
Maybe what Ray lacked was fascination. Compulsion. Monet and his lilies. Degas and his dancers. Renoir and his curvaceous women. O'Keefe and her opening flowers. Maybe it didn't take a vision at all. Maybe the real artists simply fell in love with one small aspect of the world.
Vande Zande has found his own aspect of the world with this novel. And it is stark and vast.
- Charles White