"A Gate at the Stairs" by Lorrie Moore

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Tassie Keltjin, the protagonist of Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, will never forget the lessons she learns during her first year at college, because she learns them all through heartbreak. The romantic heartbreak she suffers teaches her how little she can trust herself. Her breakup with the adorable toddler she babysits – her adoptive parents can’t keep her – breaks her heart, and rends the poor reader’s to shreds. And finally she and her family must deal with the loss of her dear, aimless brother, a casualty in Afghanistan.

Ms. Moore tells these hardships with a leavening of humor, most of it clever wordplay, but the puns and jokes harden and become brittle under the story’s pressures. She ends up telling them with a helpless wail, the better to crack wise than succumb to tears. I wonder.

 I don’t measure my reactions to books on the litmus of emotions, however. This book has plenty to commend it, principally the development of Tassie. She starts out as an innocent, her heart uncalloused by any real strife. She takes blows and batterings – really too many for any one person in a year – and comes through at the end definitely the sadder but wiser woman. I honor Ms. Moore for the clarity with which she tells the story,
while I wonder a little at what I think of as “piling on.”

Tassie is a fine construct, a wise-cracking, wide-reading, bass player, who learns quickly in a world which will teach things to you in spite of yourself. As full of well-realized characters as this book is, she’s the star here, and well worth your time.

"The Name of the World" by Denis Johnson

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At a pivotal moment toward the end of this novella, the protagonist, a college professor in the Midwest of the U.S., writes and underlines, “The name of the world” on the back of his business card and gives it to Flower Cannon, a young woman. This occurs in an abandoned, off-limits bunker where Flower lives, during a kind of fortune-telling session that she holds for him.

This scene transitions professor Michael Reed from his living coma (suffered because of the deaths of his wife and daughter five years prior) to an engagement with life. This scene feels like he’s asking the identity of the universe he’s about to re-enter, but author Denis Johnson might mean something a lot deeper, I haven’t figured it out. At story’s outset, Professor Reed watches his life in a detached way, seeing things as though from a distance and feeling nothing about them. However, he stumbles into an art classroom and seeing the model, who is not motionless or passive, snaps him out of his funk immediately.

 He begins to live again, but he needs more lessons, a stamp of approval, and of course this must come from Flower. Reed knows that his life will now head in unpredictable directions, but although intimacy with Flower seems possible, that doesn’t turn out to be the point. Flower is a portal of another kind. She lives in a Spartan, featureless bunker, but is surrounded by her art and her quirky collection of mundane objects. It serves as the anteroom for the rest of his life, and contains some suggested materials for it. Flower has “… bits of glass and shards of mirrors, strips and patches of astronomical and topographical maps, nautical charts … She kept glass jars of buttons and boxes of marbles. Here was the lid of a large box like a tray holding multicolored strings and yarns, the silvery, papery bark of a birch tree, small chrome and plastic emblems …” These raw materials share the space with easels turned toward the wall, works ready to be considered as art, or as not art. It’s all potentiality at this point.

Their conversation brings out the amazing fact that Flower has two sisters (Professor Reed: “Sisters! There are more of you? What a world.”), one of whom her hippie parents named Kali, the Hindu god of destruction and rebirth. From the Hindu Tridevi, or Three Goddesses, Flower herself evokes Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music, art, and dance. She also encompasses the cosmic consciousness, and so some sense can be made of Prof. Reed’s “request” of her, for the name of the world.

This is the story of a quest, or rather the prelude to a quest, because it climaxes at the quest’s beginning. Mr. Johnson tells this sympathetic story in a short, powerful burst, and the novella form serves him so perfectly. Of contemporary American writers, no one serves up the same combination of straight-ahead muscular prose and challenging symbolic construct as National Book Award-winning Denis Johnson. This is superb, a gem.

"Train Dreams" by Denis Johnson

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While reading Train Dreams I felt like I was following the high-flown language and archetypal plot of an ancient epic poem. Robert Grainier, the novella’s hero, comes from a mysterious past and goes through life with minimal contact with his fellows, but what he does experience achieves a mythic dimension. The plain, unadorned prose that author Denis Johnson uses serves the story perfectly and never gets in the way of the stunning events. This slim volume packs a disproportionate weight – I’m left to consider, what might come next from this unpredictable and impossibly effective author.

Robert Grainer thinks he was born around 1886 – it might have been Canada, but he’s heard that it could also have been Utah. He works in his twenties and thirties as a local laborer in the Idaho panhandle and discovers he likes working on the bridges that allow the railroads to soar over ravines. These sketchy details and lack of clear roots sets the stage for the supernatural, but before we encounter that, we experience Robert’s tragedy: he loses his wife of a few years, and their infant daughter, to a forest fire while he is away on a job.

 He is known around his hamlet as a lonely, tragic figure, and he lives a solitary life, but isn’t quite a hermit. Even in infirm old age,
however, he continues to spend summer and fall at the remote cabin he built so many years before in the aftermath of his wife’s death; he does it for a secret reason, a reason he knows he can’t tell anyone.

In a way only Denis Johnson can manage, the stuff of legend is rendered here on the page. He baffles me with his strength in a few short phrases, and the epic life he can render in a short novella reads like the stuff of classic poetry. Every experience with Denis Johnson is an uncanny, memorable one. The man never disappoints, and can never be predicted.

"Falling Sideways" by Thomas E. Kennedy

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In an elegant portrayal of generational conflict in a few select families, Thomas E. Kennedy focuses on the tortured internal dialogs of a few stressed individuals to exceptional effect in Falling Sideways. Mr. Kennedy’s writing here is so forceful and affecting, I had despaired of any kind of heartening or life-affirming ending – but the ending surprised me quite a lot. It’s a fulfilling, lustrous conclusion to a book full of sad truths, all perfectly observed and rendered.

Fred Breathwaite, American expatriate, lives and works in Copenhagen, and frets about his 22 year-old son. He has a suddenly prickly relationship with the CEO of the think tank where he has worked for 27 years (the CEO being one of the most loathsome characters I have encountered in any recent fiction). Fred’s son Jes was blessed with a quick mind and has loads of potential, if only he would try to realize some of it. A second father-son narrative parallels that of the Breathwaites, this one containing the story of the loathsome CEO, Martin Kampman, and his son, Adam. Mr. Kennedy
treats us to a high-relief contrast with these two stories, and they begin to intersect in the younger generation, with some very telling results. Other characters receive due exposure: the charlatan, skirt-chasing middle manager, the dignified, unbowed au pair girl, the lonely and lovely finance executive who has a brief fling.

None of these characters evokes our sympathy very much, and Mr. Kennedy shows us the fear and arrogance, and toadyism, and paranoia rampant in this modern corporate culture. The fraught internal dialogs power the narrative and Mr. Kennedy flashes his brilliance by so utterly changing the tone and process from one character to the next. This, and the surprising, almost deus ex machina-type ending make Falling Sideways a highly worthwhile read.