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Scott Driscoll reviews Murdock Tackles Taos by Robert J. Ray

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Guest Post by Scott Driscoll: Scott Driscoll holds an MFA from the University of Washington and has been teaching creative writing for the University of Washington Extension for seventeen years. His short stories and narrative essays have been published extensively in literary journals and anthologies, including American Fiction ’88, Cimarron Review, Crosscurrents, Gulfstream, Image Magazine, Poets and Writers Magazine, The Seattle ReviewThe South Dakota Review, and others. His narrative essay about his daughter’s coming of age was cited in the Best American Essays, 1998, and while in the MFA program, he won the University of Washington’s Milliman Award for Fiction (1989).

Scott’s debut novel, Better You Go Home, is forthcoming from Coffeetown Press in September, 2013.

A Surprising Feast

Helene Steinbeck is in Taos, New Mexico to plug her latest novel at a writer’s conference.  But in Murdock Tackles Taos, a murder mystery by Robert Ray (Camel Press, 328 pages, $16.95, out June 15, 2013), Helene leads a more thrilling life than most writers. Hiking up Angel Mountain, Helene only misses becoming the target of a high-powered arrow when a stranger garbed in green camos slams her to the ground. Actually, she falls onto a still warm corpse, the latest victim of a local crime syndicate whose twisted boss, Theo Ulster, a Brit with “Special Air Services” training, “tougher than most army rangers,” sublimates a fetish for mother-lust into ritualized pack hunts for unusual prey.

There’s more, of course.  A menu of model-pretty female tennis pros offered for puerile sport.  White slavery.  There is no depravity, it seems, that Ulster’s band of archers has left untried.  None of which—no horror, no matter how gruesome—slows down our hero.  Murdock.  Sleuth for hire.  And, you guessed it, Helene’s savior in camos.

If you’re looking for a tight-lipped Elliot Ness going after baddies with a Doberman-like focus, you won’t find it here.  This is more Gary Cooper in High Noon, a loveable loner with a wry humor, much tenderness for the fairer sex, an unflappable exterior, and, perhaps most notably, an un-erodible belief that exposing corruption is worth any risk—if the pay is right.

Murdock, the revitalized hero of Ray’s earlier murder mystery series, is in Taos on a mission.  Find the missing daughter of an “old Army pal.” As luck would have it, Helene, a creative writing dropout, settled into a career as a detective.  They join forces on this quest and the expectant reader is rewarded with lubricious sex culminating in the kind of respect that makes you want to like the tough guy all the more: “Murdock…gave himself up to her…felt her magic, her mystery.  She was Mother Nature in all her earth-fire force.”

Trouble is, Ulster’s band of archers has no patience for romance.  Before even our heroes divine the full depth of Ulster’s depravity, the reader is treated to a ceremony.  “Silence kept them focused… welded them together in a sacred space where the only act was a ritual older than civilization.” In one of the more gruesome scenes in the novel, the reader has a gallery view as a drugged teen tennis player, surrounded by men and women wearing “robes, masks, and white latex gloves,” engage in “the delicate dance of death.” The victim’s crime? She is a “Lookalike.” She resembles Ulster’s mother, who molested the young-monster-to-be when he was young.

The action heats when our heroes themselves become prey in one of Ulster’s hunts.  But, don’t worry, the search for the missing girl has not been abandoned.  Without giving the ending away, suffice it to say even Murdock can still be “amazed.”  “This woman [Helene] had been battered, bruised, abused, raped, wounded, driven close to death—and yet…”

Ray delivers a hero you want for a pal.  Romance balanced on the knife-edge of danger.  A hunter’s view of the hills outside of Taos.  Bad guys profiting from macabre perversions.  This is a nerve-tingling story.

Packed between the opening’s deadly arrows and the ending’s battle in court, there is enough action to keep you on edge.  You’ll come away hungry for more of this Murdock.

Discloser:  Scott has a forthcoming book with Coffeetown Press. Camel Press is an imprint of same.

Written by Caleb Powell

June 26, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Scott Driscoll Reviews Gabriela and the Widow by Jack Remick

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Guest Post by Scott Driscoll: Scott Driscoll holds an MFA from the University of Washington and has been teaching creative writing for the University of Washington Extension for seventeen years. His short stories and narrative essays have been published extensively in literary journals and anthologies, including American Fiction ’88, Cimarron Review, Crosscurrents, Gulfstream, Image Magazine, Poets and Writers Magazine, The Seattle ReviewThe South Dakota Review, and others. His narrative essay about his daughter’s coming of age was cited in the Best American Essays, 1998, and while in the MFA program, he won the University of Washington’s Milliman Award for Fiction (1989).

Scott’s debut novel, Better You Go Home, is forthcoming from Coffeetown Press in September, 2013.

Gabriela’s Transformation

Jack Remick, in his new novel, considers societies that subordinate women. Gabriela and the Widow (Coffeetown Press, 260 pages, $14.95 trade paperback) opens with Gabriela, a 14-year-old from the rural south of Mexico, forced to bury her mother and embark north following the destruction of her village, violence that includes Gabriela’s brutal rape at the hands of a “Toad” soldier.  Her luck hardly improves. At first.

Her purity of heart and innocence, qualities that cling to her like a serape, attract those who would sell her into sex slavery. But the same qualities also attract a Norteña. Soon Gabriela is over the border seeking maid work in California. She becomes a domestic devoted to helping a wealthy widow archive her memoirs. The widow poses a different danger.

Remick’s novel is rich with heated language that can be harsh like the world that threatens to devour Gabriela, or lush with burgeoning sexual awareness. Still in flight from her persecutors, Gabriela encounters “the toad smell…the smell that tortured her most…it was the smell of something crawling out of the dark…the smell of a fearsome creeping animal, long of tooth and sharp of claw, the smell of the dead, the odor of dried blood, the reek of pus in a deep and infected wound…”

Time passes. Safe in the widow’s villa and sorting the “list” that brings the widow’s past mysteriously back to life, Gabriela has a disturbing reaction to the story of the death of the widow’s husband. While mining in Cameroon, each day railroad cars entered the mountain’s tunnel “and its heat scorched rocks, steam shot out of the rock…even their drill bits melted. When they punched…deeper into her, she spat back boiling water and then she broke. The entire face collapsed…one hundred and one men. Devoured.” Listening to the widow’s story turn the mountain into a metaphor for the destructive power of female lust, Gabriela reacts: “Gabriela’s head was hot, sweat breaking out on her skin, and her palms were wet.” Far from surprised by this reaction, the widow remarks: “You are all heat and sex, Gaby…Look at you. Tus tetas, tus piernas, esa cara. You have the jungle inside you swelling like the vulva of your flower goddess. You are a greenhouse of desire.” The widow sees in Gabriela a protégé, though the widow’s ultimate purpose is not yet revealed.

The end is riveting. Gabriela is transformed, though not into a butterfly of desire. Power is the legacy the widow passes on. Power. Armed, Gabriela hunts down her former tormentors. Not to give too much away, let’s just say their fate befits their crimes. Gabriela’s revenge is swift, exacting, and unforgiving. This is not a neat morality tale. Remick’s novel invites us to taste the blood and to roll in the sweat. It also invites us to enjoy one subordinated woman’s payback.

Discloser:  Scott has a forthcoming book with Coffeetown Press.

Written by Caleb Powell

January 14, 2013 at 8:37 am

Why Do We Need Stories?

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Guest Post by Scott Driscoll:  Scott Driscoll holds an MFA from the University of Washington and has been teaching creative writing for the University of Washington Extension for seventeen years. His short stories and narrative essays have been published extensively in literary journals and anthologies, including Poets and Writers Magazine, Image MagazineThe Seattle Review, Crosscurrents, Cimarron Review, The South Dakota Review, Gulfstream, American Fiction ’88 and others. His narrative essay about his daughter’s coming of age was cited in the Best American Essays, 1998, and while in the MFA program, he won the University of Washington’s Milliman Award for Fiction (1989).

Scott’s debut novel, Better You Go Home, is forthcoming from Coffeetown Press in September 2013.

Stories: Why Bother?

  1. Why read stories when I can catch the news?
  2. Someone actually said this to me. He admitted, “S’pose I should, but…”
  3. If stories delivered to us reduce the moral complexity to the narrow and possibly didactic view of that singular author, and if other sources of information, such as news, history books, or essays are just as capable of delivering us to complex moral situations, why do we need stories?
  4. In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez notes:  “No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself.”
  5. The mark of a good story is not one that solves a dilemma but one that poses a question in an interesting way. This according to Chekhov.
  6. Vaclav Havel, celebrated leader of the Czech Velvet Revolution: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
  7. In the opening of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes about the February 1948 handover of the government of Czechoslovakia to the communists. Gottwald stands next to Clementis in the photo taken in Prague’s Old Town Square. It was cold. Clementis solicitously put his fur cap on Gottwald’s head. Hundreds of thousands of commemoration photos were sent. Four years later, Clementis was hanged. Subsequent distributions had Clementis airbrushed out of the photo.
  8. Okay, what if we were to think of story as a mirror held up to reality? Not an escape from reality, but a way of taking a second look?
  9. Observes Italo Calvino:  “Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live,” And, “He carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.”
  10. Any artfully presented story is nothing more than a conjuror’s trick, or, worse, an abdication of our responsibility to learn how to live compassionately without a didactic author leading us by the nose.
  11. Calvino’s interpretation: “To cut off the Medusa’s head without being turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror…As for the severed head, Perseus does not abandon it but carries it concealed in a bag… It is a weapon he uses only in cases of dire necessity, and only against those who deserve the punishment of being turned into statues… Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live.”
  12. Calvino admits, “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space.”
  13. He is not suggesting an escape from the heaviness of history, so much as a flight above it to stories that achieve levity and reflect the Medusa of reality without the viewer being turned to “stone” by the horror.
  14. Reading stories enhances our ability to empathize.
  15. Reading novels reduces violence.
  16. Wright Morris:  “We are accustomed to reflections on the death of the novel but I have seen little reported on the death of the reader.”
  17. Among the “melancholy facts of human culture,” there are readers who hate fiction just as there are listeners who consume music but are tone deaf. Both have the temerity to call themselves critics and avatars of taste.
  18. To have the wonderment of a child is to fly on the backs of stories.
  19. Stories lift us above repression. Artless reality represses.
  20. J.M. Coetzee opens Elizabeth Costello with:  “There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which is, as yet, nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging problem… People solve such problems every day… Let us assume that, however it may have been done, it is done. Let us take it that the bridge is built and crossed, that we can put it out of our mind. We have left behind that territory in which we were. We are in the far territory, where we want to be.”
  21. Coetzee complains that the “heavy lifting” of storytelling is a burden.
  22. The protagonist, Anders, in Tobias Wolff’s story, “Bullet in the Brain,” is a book critic “known for the weary elegant savagery with which he dispatches almost everything he reviewed.” Unable to resist critiquing the unoriginal performance of a thief during a bank robbery in progress—“Capiche—oh, God, capiche,”—Anders is shot in the head. He will not be as fortunate as Perseus. He makes the mistake of confronting Medusa directly. For that mistake, Anders will die. But in the moment preceding death, he reflects on the loss of wonderment. He remembers a childhood friend playing sandlot baseball. Said friend has brought along his cousin from Mississippi. When asked what position he wants to play, this cousin replies, “Shortstop. Short’s the best position they is.” Anders is “strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.”
  23. News flash: Mouthy book critic shot dead in bank hold-up. What more do you need to know?

Written by Caleb Powell

October 29, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Scott Driscoll Reviews A Very Minor Prophet

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The following is a guest review of James Bernard Frost‘s A Very Minor Prophet (April, 2012, Hawthorne Books, 8.5×11, 200 pages, $18.95) by Scott Driscoll, teacher at the UW Extension Creative Writing Program.

James Bernard Frost’s new novel, A Very Minor Prophet pulls the curtain on an underground Portland peepshow that won’t disappoint.  For all its graphic splatter of Voodoo donuts, Stumptown coffee, ecstatic bike rides, and rambling sermons delivered by a midget preacher to a modest congregation of anarchists, prostitutes, lesbians, and zinesters, Frost’s novel, aside from its likely appeal to twenty-somethings swilling their own PBR-fueled search for identity, is really, at its heart, a touching love story.  As well, to his credit, Frost offers a pretty authentic portrait of Portland, Oregon’s underbelly, not to mention life in the damp chilly Northwest.

“My friends, America is not cute anymore, it’s run through its adolescence, and it’s looking more and more like Mommy raised a psychopath,” claims Booker, the midget preacher in a “sermon.” This observation, in the wake of the 2004 presidential election, generally sums up the lament of the liberal youth culture that populates this novel. More specifically, it sums up our hero’s journey.

It starts off cute enough.  “At age twenty-two,” opines Bartholomew Flynn, “I lacked the ink that marked my generation of misfits, but I wasn’t lucky enough to find a corporate office admin job.”  With a “coffee degree” in English from a Midwestern university, Flynn realizes his destiny—he works at Mecca Café.  But what’s lacking in his slice of American Pie is made up for in creativity and sheer brio.  After  listening to Booker sermonize, Flynn starts writing “His Church that Sunday,” a “zine” replete with graphics that earns him the right to call himself the preacher’s scribe.

Enter Mercyx.  Nothing happens without the pedaling force of the bicycle messenger/Photocopy Queen.  To appreciate Mercyx, you have to appreciate her power to transform.  “Mercyx was wearing a strapless dress, a kitschy cotton number with Ferris wheels on it in pink and yellow pastels…The contrast between the hard tattoos and the soft colors of her dress was a visual fiasco, making her appear comic and freaky and completely stunning all at once. Seed for romance thus planted, with help from a mooching professional illustrator, the zine gets traction, most significantly at Ben Dover Books (pun intended), where eventually it will bring real world riches to someone but not to our hapless hero, who signs away his rights for five hundred dollars, chump change he eventually, in despair, spends on a hooker he can ill afford for a variety of reasons.

En route to betrayal, Flynn survives encounters with a band of anarchists led by charismatic bad boy Diogenes.  While held down and forced to ingest cheap beer through a tube, Flynn notes he is looking at, “two chef paramedics, a pirate, an ape man, Tiny the Clown, and two bearded Mad-Max looking guys…” you get the picture, “a bunch of future-thinking guys” who are “learning skills that the rest of the world thought was laughable, learning how to weld, learning how to endure pain, learning how to live as a clan,” a bunch who go into action as “gas-masked, tall-bike riding anarchists who shouted insults and hurled beer cans at…” the windshields of “the stupid manatees, the bulbous lard-addled American masses…” soon to become victims of the “apocalypse” they “deserved.”

It’s Mercyx who finally pushes Flynn to a point of no return.  One guess as to who he finds in bed with the midget preacher.  Howling in psychic pain, Flynn hurls his beloved bike from the Broadway bridge, strips, don’s a whore’s wig, wags his naked wiener at traffic, is pummeled by an ice-cold Vanilla Coke, and arrives at this insight: “In order to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, or whatever you want to call it—your higher calling, your fullest potential—you have to make an ass of yourself.”

This novel is Less Than Zero meets coffee degree Zinester anarchists in soggy Portland with a midget messiah thrown in for theological spicing.   Add bold graphics.  Add speech bubbles.  Add asides to discourse on coffee and Catholicism.  Okay, and with all that it’s actually by turns funny and sad.  The novel’s main shortcoming is its tendency to resort to shock—in our first real love moment, our two bicyclists puke side-by-side—where delicacy and finesse might have left a taste more savory to the discerning palate.  Maybe tastelessness is the point?

Don’t ask how Booker has his John the Baptist head end up on a platter, you’re told in the prologue and it’s heavy-handed and hardly factors in the story except to clear the way for someone else’s happy ending.  Don’t worry about that.  And don’t worry about the morning-after taste.  Just climb on and go for a wild ride.

Scott Driscoll, winner of an Educational Outreach award for Excellence in Teaching in the Arts and Humanities 2006, has an MFA from the University of Washington and makes his living as a writer and teacher. His short stories and narrative essays have been published extensively in literary journals and anthologies.

DISCLOSER: Scott Driscoll has no relationship with Hawthorne Books or the author.

Written by Caleb Powell

May 11, 2012 at 4:52 am

Scott Driscoll Reviews David Rocklin’s The Luminist

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The following is a guest review of David Rocklin‘s The Luminist (October, 2011, Hawthorne Books, 322 pages, $15.95).  Thanks to Scott Driscoll, teacher at the UW Extension Creative Writing Program.

“David Rocklin’s The Luminist is based on the early life of a mid-19th century British photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, who lived with her jurist husband in Calcutta. Rocklin moves the setting to the 1830 British colony of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where his heroine, Catherine Colebrook, attempts to lobby the court to show sympathy for the natives because a corrupt and greedy governor is bent on removing them, sometimes by killing, so he can sell off their farms to patrons. Her husband, Charles, is a member of the colonial law court. Enter Tamil boy Eligius, whose 15-year old father, after pleading the tax-burdened case of the locals at court, is murdered. Eligius is employed at the Colebrook family’s decaying estate. His father’s cohorts push Eligius to seek revenge or, at the very least, to steal from his employers or give locals access to the household. Eligius, however, forms a bond with Catherine as a photographer’s assistant.

Catherine, a scientist and artist, is obsessed with her quest to tame images of light and shadow. The photos through much of the story prove too ephemeral to convince doubters; the images fade within minutes after appearing. Eligius, though, shows prowess at mastering the magnification and direction of light. He becomes indispensible. Photography achieves the forbidden, a kiss stolen between dark-skinned Eligius and Catherine’s teen daughter, Julia. Couple that with the fateful clash between native and colonialist cultures and you reward all but the reader who requires a thriller’s pace.

If you read for story you will be pleased, you will want to read on. And if you seek character, you may ache for Eligius in his nearly hopeless quest to please a benefactor in order to save his family while risking the vengeful wrath of locals who believe he’s a traitor. Or Catherine, whose passion is pure, whose quest we trust, and you will follow anxiously one step behind while the Colebrook family, in company with Eligius and his sister, escape angry looters in hopes of making it onto the last ship out. But if you read for language you might find yourself stumbling over prose that is often eloquent but at other times stiff, or, worse, opaquely shadowed in the murk of, ahem…”purple prose.”

Flaubert coined a term for a narrative device known as the “flaneur,” or “loafer.” This referred to a character that drifts without purpose through town, looking left and looking right, observing, reporting, reflecting without urgency. This flaneur becomes an obvious stand-in for the author.  This drifting consciousness becomes a “noticer” appearing as a detached voice. How a story gets told is essentially a matter of deciding who will do the noticing, to whom the story is addressed, and from what distance. A problem arises when tone, level of diction, or figurative language is inconsistent and without obvious explanation.

Rocklin’s prose drifts from concrete realism into verbal excess. As R. B. Myers, in his A Reader’s Manifesto (The Atlantic, July/August 2001), notes, “Everything is in…self-conscious, writerly prose… as long as it keeps the reader at a respectfully admiring distance.”  When Rocklin’s flaneur stays true to what can be observed, the telling is clear and engaging: “Colonials congregated in groups like clusters of nettles, festooned in their finest linens and silks. The nun tugged at brilliantly hued sashes fixed around their throats while they raged at each other in something approaching verse.  Their voices rose and fell while white boys carved into parchment with the sharpened quills of native birds.” This depiction of Eligius watching a ship’s arrival could be said to lack that scintillating detail that makes it just “this,” for example what exactly is a “brilliant hued sash”?  But his flaneur more than makes up for lack of detail when describing the process of photography: “They used gun cotton to bathe the plates in silver salt.  They lacquered skins of collodion onto them and potassium mixed with oil of lavender to lend flexibility.” But Rocklin’s flaneur cannot resist adding, “Light and shadow became their accomplices.”  Aside from the anthropomorphism, this “noticer” veers into a didacticism that can’t really be explained as belonging to either Eligius or Catherine. While not egregious, it distracts.

And there are stiff passages of dialogue. “No more of this baseless fear…” says Catherine to her daughter.  “This is science, and a little faith…”  To which Julia replies, “This nameless pursuit shouldn’t be yours,” which leads Catherine to quip, “If it suits you to bow quietly, then do so.”  Historical fiction suffers, generally, from characters who deliver speeches as if they are so far back in time no one could speak in easeful conversational tones. Rocklin’s flaneur can’t resist punctuating the prose with “…outside the sky shed much of its black skin and bruised over with color,” or, “Charles’ stirrings had slowed to nothing. His mouth opened and remained.”  Or, when all seems lost on the colonial’s ship, when we least want to be distracted, we are confronted with, “Old by the time of its arrival, the remains of something already gone into history.”

Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea contains stilted dialogue, proof that aesthetic mistakes are not always fatal. Thankfully, in The Luminist, there are many touching scenes.  At the docks, for example, Eligius and his younger sister are torn out of the Colebrooks’ grasp and forced away.  Before decamping for England and abandoning her loyal assistant, Catherine presses the folded camera, an icon of everything worthwhile in this story, into Eligius’s arms.  “Listen,” says Catherine, “We will find each other again.”

The Luminist is a story worth reading. The characters are taken on a journey we know well, but in a manner that breathes freshness and urgency into that old story of exploitation. The insights into pioneer photography are a terrific added bonus for readers who like to learn something from their novels, who favor “loafers” telling stories like charismatic tour guides. I only wish Rocklin had trusted his riveting story to be enough.

Scott Driscoll holds an MFA from the University of Washington and has been teaching creative writing for the University of Washington Extension for seventeen years. He’s written articles for Alaska and Horizon Airlines Magazines and Poets and WritersOther fiction and essays of his are in American Fiction, Cimarron Review, Crosscurrents, Ex-Files: New Stories About Old Flames (with Junot Diaz, Jennifer Egan, and David Foster Wallace), Gulfstream, Image, The Seattle Review, The South Dakota Review, and a notable work in Best American Essays, 1998.

DISCLOSER: Scott Driscoll has no relationship with Hawthorne Books or the author.

Written by Caleb Powell

October 17, 2011 at 3:13 am

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