the city is crying
falling to pieces
throw the bodies into sewer streams
wash away the skeletons of yesterday
cages upon cages
give us some air to breathe
ants bump together in single file lines
But it’s the sketches and illustrations that knock you out. Lawrence is an accomplished cartoonist whose work recalls Jules Feiffer and John Holmstrom, and the bug-eyed, poetic creatures that crawl around the margins of these carefully illustrated manuscript pages make each poem come alive. If you buy only one poetry chapbook this year, maybe demons in. demons out should be the one.
I had some trouble figuring out how to approach Frank’s War by Chris Boucher, subtitled “A Novel Inspired by 9/11 and the War Journal of Vietnam Veteran Fred Galus, Jr. Is it a novel or a journal? The arrangement is way too Borgesian for a stark story about the legacy of a soldier, although I applaud the efforts of the author, a technical writer living in Boston, to turn the found notebooks of his late father-in-law into a meaningful book. But it seems Chris Boucher has fictionalized all the war journal entries in this novel, and I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather read the real journal entries. I hope Boucher will persevere with this material, but he should publish the journals and write a novel, instead of trying to combine both into one slim volume of 104 pages.
I felt similarly frustrated with Stet by James Chapman, an undeniably smart and well-written book published by Fugue State Press. The title character is an allegedly legendary Russian filmmaker stuck in a prison camp, and the narrative recalls the moody philosophical musings of a typical Dostoevsky character:
The disposition of this planet is such that impractical people are cut out. If you are an eastern mystic and you don’t even know how to hold your alms-bowl right-side-up, you are going to be tried and judged by your own stomach.
But the publisher makes it very difficult for a reader to enjoy this book by presenting it without the slightest explanation or explication, either on the back cover or anywhere else. No publisher should underestimate the importance of a back cover introduction, especially for a book and an author that nobody knows anything about. Why do I want to dive into a thick block of prose if I have no idea what I am diving into? I look in vain for a frontispiece, an endpaper, anything for me to grip onto. I double-check — am I holding a galley instead of a finished book? No, this is the whole book. I hope some readers will decide to take the plunge into this volume, because it seems to have something to say, but I could not find an entry point and gave up after a few pages.
LitKicks readers may have already looked at Gus Openshaw’s Whale-Killing Journal, a comic novel by Keith Thompson that originated in a very funny blog and was a finalist for a Blooker Prize (along with LitKicks) earlier this year (LitKicks lost, and so did this book). The book is a lively spin on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, featuring a fearsome whale nicknamed “the blubbery bastard”. Some of the surreal jokes work (like a character named “Thesaurus”) and some don’t. A look at the blog gives you a good idea what you’ll find between these covers. Like Melville’s book itself, you’ll either like it or you won’t.
What can I say about a whimsical book called The Legend of Juggin Joe by Joseph Yakel? It’s told completely in hillbilly dialect, like so:
Joe picked up the first big jug an’ started blowin’. First time he done so, he durned near jumped outta his skin on account ah the “Hoot” that come emanating from that there jug. It wuz a mournful kind sound an’ skairt ‘im tah the point ah lookin’ round the shed tah see if’n there wuz a ghost er goblin ’bout.
Juggin’ Joe turns out to be a musical genius, up there in the hills. Well, hey, Garrison Keillor has made stuff like this work, and James Dickey has visited this territory before. I would like to see Joseph Yakel get somewhere with this endeavor, but I have to complain about packaging yet again. How many self-published or indie-published books never get to first base because of design/presentation problems that undercut any chance of success? It’s a shame. A book like this one should have a homespun country look, but instead the cover illustration is a computer generated portrait of the main character that does not match the tone or style of the book in the slightest. This turns out to be a fatal flaw, as the reader will feel dislocated before reaching page one.
It’s interesting that three of the above five books suffer from packaging problems. I have no lack of sympathy for anybody who endeavors to begin the thankless task of small press publishing, but it’s a shame when a publisher undercuts his book’s slim chance of success with poor design decisions. Maybe some of these authors and publishers should give their material a second try.