When I review self-published or small press books, I always try them not only on literary merits but also on street smarts. Does the book have what it takes to get noticed out there in this big lonely world? Is the design appealing and powerful? Does the back cover text offer me a compelling reason to want to read the book? Does the author have a good website?
I’m not going to champion a book that doesn’t know how to champion itself. And you all know how I feel about spelling errors. (Don’t even. Just don’t.)
In this spirit, here is the latest installment of the LitKicks indie reviews, February 2006 edition.
Delphine LeCompte’s Kittens in the Boiler, published by Thieves Jargon Press, feels more like an objet d’art than a book. The cover is gorgeous. The typography is impeccable. As if to contrast this clean white vision, the words are a dark fount of anger, guilt and disgust. “Wee wolves and big pervs/i was brought up by wolves”, the story begins. Later: “Tinned death threats and plastic dolphins/i wrote stories on the tinned meat yesterday in the godforsaken supermarket”. It’s rage poetry with a autobiographical tint, a book-length torrent of words by a self-proclaimed former milk bottle stacker, barmaid and hooker. I’m not sure what a book like this is meant to do in the world, but I’m glad the book exists.
Tim Hall’s Half Empty is another admirable effort, and a much more traditionally satisfying narrative. It’s a story in the classic confused-young-man genre of Goethe’s suicidal aesthete and Salinger’s irritable preppie. The opening chapter relates the horrible morning observations of a deeply depressed recovering alcoholic living in a Brooklyn apartment building:
Dennis suddenly felt nauseous. He sat up again and waited for the dizziness to stop. When he felt steady enough he got up and went into the kitchen. The sink was filled with dishes and oily, tepid water in which floated carrot peelings, coffee grounds and used matches.
This guy makes his way from occasion to occasion, often obsessing about his life before and after alcohol, and finally reuniting for a tragic (wouldn’t you know it) half-reunion with the love of his life, who he cannot get through to no matter how hard he tries. Tim Hall’s publishing skills are outstanding (his own Undie Press publishes a variety of authors besides himself) and the cover design perfectly matches the mood of the work.
Dark, dark and more dark: the sea is not yet full is another transgressive fever dream, an intense, assaultive descent into the horrors of self, by a young Australian author named J. J. DeCeglie:
Yes, I say fuck it. Over and over and again and again. As my fingers pound this borrowed keyboard two demon deft digits me hunched over it in monitor glow drooling from a smeared mouth with food in my teeth and beer on my breath.
The cover design is, again, quite good (what? three in a row?), and I admire the author’s austere consistency. But there is one thing missing: a sense of anticipation and forward momentum. What am I about to read? What will I get out of it? Who is the author? The minimalist narrative calls out to me, but doesn’t call me in, even as I admire the propulsive energy of the prose. (Another thing this book is missing is a URL; I could not find a way to buy it online).
Midnight in America is by an author and poet named D. Eminizer who often contributes to the LitKicks Action Poetry board. I’ve always liked his eclectic and elliptical poetry, which has a weird modern music to it. But I had some trouble with the physical appearance of this novel. The cover art is okay, though the guitar and the gravestone evoke a cliched Jim Morrison aesthetic. But the inner layout is very distracting, with tiny cramped text that appears, inexplicably, only on the bottom three-fifths of each page (the upper two-fifths are blank). With that said, I was drawn in to the hypnotically depressed mind-moan narration of an impoverished drug-taking societal ne’er-do-well. He goes to a Pink Floyd concert (but fails to tell us whether or not Roger Waters was playing bass or whether they opened with “Astronomy Domine”). The narrator has a slippery relationship with everything around him, and with reality itself:
I’d merged with the chair and there was no escape. Why struggle anymore? No matter how hard I tried I could not release my grip, or perhaps the chair wouldn’t let go of me.
Emiziner also runs a suitably energetic web community called 99 Burning. The design can only be described as “brutalist”, and I think this is what the creators had in mind.
We move on finally to Bill Ectric, a good friend to LitKicks, who has regaled us here with excellent articles like this and this and this. His story collection Time Adjusters and Other Stories is the most ambitiously postmodern of the five reviewed here today, and no less stark or transgressive because of it. A short piece called “Bucket Head” is narrated in a cheerful, folksy cadence as it relates what happened when some schoolkids played a prank on a janitor, gluing a bucket to his head.
Gravis woke up confused in darkness. He slowly stood up and fumbled for the light switch. It was hard to breathe with his head in the bucket. Gravis panicked and tried to find the door. He tripped over a mop and went crashing into a shelf full of cleaning supplies. A bottle of solvent cleaner spilled all over him. Gravis reached into his pocket for his cigarette lighter, thinking it would give him some light. When he flicked the Bic, the flammable liquid solvent cleaner went FLOOM and the big janitor felt the flames of hell engulf him.
Ouch. Ectric’s stories often contain hidden nuggets of menace, though they are always told with a smile. “Cut Up (the Stolen Scroll)” is the definitive piece in this collection, a Lynchian saga about a stolen Kerouac manuscript and a secret message that turns dangerous when subjected to Burroughs-style poetic cut-ups. Ectric seems like too nice a guy to be evoking William S. Burroughs (as he does frequently in this book), and in fact it is this discrepancy that provides his unique identity as a writer.
The only thing I don’t like about Bill Ectric’s book is the cover. Even fluourescent orange shading can’t turn a mundane photo of a Jacksonville office building into a worthy visual corollary for this book of experimental prose. But then I’ve been yelling at Bill for years to please stop using Comic Sans and Times New Roman on his website, and the guy doesn’t listen.
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