"The Descartes Highlands" by Eric Gamalinda

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Since finishing The Descartes Highlands I have been trying to feel qualified to review it. Multiple parallel threads, set in two time periods, laden with high choler and sometimes mysterious motivations – these are the initial challenges of this book.

Mr. Gamalinda tells the story of two young men, born to two Philippine women but fathered by one American man, who pursue answers to their mysterious pasts through different channels. One was adopted by married French filmmakers, the other by a woman who operated an abortion clinic near New York. The uncertainty of their origins, and their resulting mistrust of everyone around them, puts them at odds with their lives. The energy generated by this tension drives the narrative forward.

Well – it partly drives the narrative, because the most abundant element here is rage. The anger comes through so strongly and unremittingly that I think it can only be authorial. He directs it at American imperialism in the Vietnam War era, state corruption and oppression under Marcos, and the hopelessness still rampant in Manila. He also trains his anger at the selfish modern approach to love.

The story builds in an organic fashion, and for me, keeps the reader at a distance from the hints that would most clearly reveal plot and thematic intent. Mr. Gamalinda has produced a plaintive novel, dense with emotion and the high stakes of loving someone, in which victims abound and solutions come at staggering cost. This book focuses the reader on some demanding, timeless issues, and challenges her to bring high energy to a story crying for resolutions. I recommend this book to those with large, giving hearts, who can afford to spend the emotional capital demanded here.

"Dexterity" by Douglas Bauer

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In one brief scene in Douglas Bauer’s majestic debut, Dexterity, a secondary character recalls her mother losing track of a sharp knife in sudsy dishwater. She cuts her finger on it, the suds become pink, and she eventually suffers permanent nerve damage, even after her husband tells her such cuts are never as severe as they first seem. This is a perfect symbol of the poor chances waiting in life for Dexterity’s characters: they treat each other with a toxic combination of self-centeredness, verbal bullying, and violence.

In an Upstate New York village not far from the Hudson River, Ed King’s young wife Ramona turns her back on her abusive husband and the infant son she has not learned to love, and walks off – literally. She heads down the highway on foot, in her flip flops. The village focuses on Ed’s troubles, and this focus is exceedingly uncomfortable for him. For Ed is his generation’s main bully, and knows the town and its culture of gossip and scandal better than anyone. When he enters the crosshairs of the town’s attention it makes him paranoid, delusional, and ever more violent.

Dexterity exhibits the mental states and thought processes of its main antagonists Ed and Ramona – that is its main calling and raison d’être. Mr. Bauer convinces us of these internal processes so completely – his triumph here is utter and complete. We can only wonder at such assurance in a debut work of fiction.

This was a bit of a slog for me. The relationships between the townspeople rest on old habits of invective and falsehood; the relationships between individuals and their own memories and consciences rest on much the same. The caring or giving individual is rare – Ramona meets a few after she gets out of town – and there is a tension in the possibility of Ed going in search and finding Ramona. Overall, however, this is a very commendable entry. It sets forth a magisterial justice for us to reflect on, and engages us with its exact and dispassionate eye for the town’s endemic emotional stuntedness.

But chiefly and particularly, we witness the tortured considerations of Ed and Ramona, whose marriage and psyches are cracked and trampled. This I highly recommend, and I’m very glad I found this author.

"The Forgers" by Bradford Morrow

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The narrator-protagonist of Bradford Morrow’s The Forgers comes across as urbane, sophisticated, and very much in love. He is all of these things, but so much more. For at one time, this unnamed speaker was one of the world’s most expert forgers, specializing in letters and inscriptions by 19th Century literary lights, Arthur Conan Doyle in particular. Because of Mr. Morrow’s brilliant characterizations through this first-person voice, we see this man’s passion for his illicit craft, and we begin to understand his emotional attachment to it.

Mr. Morrow lays out his story with a surgeon’s skill. We bear with the main character through his tribulations and appreciate his devotion to his fiancée (later wife), who knows his background but returns his love fully. Tension builds from the pressure an extortionist exerts against him – this vile man knows of the hero’s past and tries to force him back into a life of crime, which the hero has avowedly given up because he wants to live on the straight and narrow in honor of his wife. These motives do honor to our erstwhile forger, and we want a good outcome for the couple.

I can testify to the author’s skill in building suspense – several times I had to put the book down because I was a little afraid of what might happen, or what the protagonist might stoop to. The gruesome climactic moment with his tormentor isn’t necessarily a surprise, but it’s treated brilliantly: the pacing, the personalities, all aspirations and hopes lead to this crescendo. It’s a very satisfying scene, albeit very brief. The nemesis comes across as truly maniacal, and blunderingly stupid.

This novel shines with craftsmanship. Mr. Morrow has rendered a highly atmospheric, tense thriller; it features a glimpse into the arcane book-collecting world and an unblinking look at the passion of its cognoscenti. When these passions lead to unsavory activity, we sink into skullduggery, paranoia, and at length, harrowing physical danger. It was a privilege to witness these gifts on display, and to have the opportunity to deepen my acquaintance with this brilliant writer. Highly recommended!