This Week's Reads

Stanley Crawford, Koren Zailckas, Kevin Canty, and Kemp Powers.

Petroleum Man

By Stanley Crawford (Overlook, $23.95) Lord knows the right—the new and ascendant, Dubya-led, gloating and shameless, three-branches-of-government-dominating, Bible-thumping, SUV-driving, Social Security–privatizing, every-man-for- himself right—is overdue for satire. All we're getting, however, from movies and books is invective and vitriol: broadsides from the left, of which Fahrenheit 9/11 is perhaps the best—or most successful— recent example. Subtlety is not the MO here; even temperate authors like Nicholson Baker (Checkpoint) are going over the deep end with their outrage. Polemics are better suited to nonfiction, which is why that aisle of the bookstore is more engaged with our current political culture. In this sense, Petroleum Man is at least a gesture in the right direction. It's not very smart and it's not very funny, but it applies an indirect literary approach to unchecked conservative Republican power. Written as a series of birthday letters from a billionaire inventor to his grandchildren over the years, the novel indicts its subject through his sheer obliviousness to the world—and his own family. You could imagine narrator Leon Tuggs dancing around Bohemian Grove with H. Ross Perot, Ray Kroc, Sam Walton, and J.R. Simplot (the Idaho potato baron and superpatriot); he's a guy who despises the idiot masses for insatiably buying his indispensable invention. (Author Stanley Crawford never specifies what the Thingie® is or does, simply making it a generic token of capitalism.) Obsessed with his own self-aggrandizement and memorialization, Tuggs bestows elaborate scale models of his old cars and private jets on his ungrateful grandkids, each accompanied by an egomaniacal letter laying out his nostalgia and dissatisfaction with the present world. No surprise that his wife, son-in-law, and grandkids all turn against him, but the same happens to bitter old liberal ranters, too. Tuggs is bursting with tirades and theories ("soda pop, the food of the poor"; "a world based on combustion"), but he's not a sufficiently outrageous crackpot. His sins—deforestation, outsourcing, globalization, and rampant consumerism—are also disappointingly tame. For that reason, his inevitable isolation and comeuppance provide little satisfaction. I read better conservative self-parody every day in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. BRIAN MILLER Stanley Crawford will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7 p.m. Tues., March 29. Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood

By Koren Zailckas (Viking $21.95) In an interview on Salon.com, 24-year-old Koren Zailckas referred to fellow young author Brad Land while maintaining that it isn't easy for a female writer to make her debut with an addiction memoir. She said, "No one gets their panties in a twist when [he] writes a memoir." She's right. Land's Goat is about what happened to him after one crystallized, horrific moment (a kidnapping and physical assault). While some of what followed the attack feels typical of a frat boy's collegiate experience, his life had a discernable "before" and "after." The psychological damage profoundly changed him (in fact, he ceased to be a frat boy). In her memoir, Smashed, Zailckas essentially argues that her life has also been catastrophically divided, yet by a means of her own choosing. How? She took a drink. So did most of us, right? Hardly a teenager escapes the allure of alcohol. Zailckas' point isn't that she's different, just that she's the one who got the $150,000 publishing advance to write about it. Binge drinking, particularly on college campuses, is certainly in the news, but don't we all already know the hows and whys? Teenagers hate themselves and the world around them. They want to escape parents, exams, and pressures—at least for a while. Describing her years between 14 and 22, Zailckas bounces back and forth between experiences made wonderful because of alcohol and experiences made horrific because of alcohol, but rarely does she ever consider why, apart from the booze, she sought out those situations. Her most astutely pointed finger is a mention of her mother reading Reviving Ophelia. She notes the passages that her mother highlights in an attempt to make sense of her daughter's behavior. Then she singles out a passage that isn't highlighted, a paragraph about parents who cripple their children's emotions because of crippling experiences in their own childhoods. She doesn't explore that cycle, maybe because that would bring Smashed into the realm of self-help. Zailckas is, for now at least, simply a storyteller. Yet some of what Zailckas has to say is important, mainly because she's a young person writing about the epidemic of alcohol abuse among our youth. She writes well the way the best songwriters of her generation do. There's an earnestness that can be a little embarrassing, but it's that candor that gives her words, and her stories, their weight. But the underlying problem, which Zailckas identifies by skirting it, is still there: parents and their children not talking, like the author and her mother, about the causes of alcohol abuse. Is there finally a before and after to Smashed? Yes, if it helps get those conversations started. LAURA CASSIDY Winslow in Love

By Kevin Canty (Nan A. Talese, $23.95) Woe to the college professor who wakes up middle-aged with a graduate student lying next to him. For even if he has bedded the comeliest of coeds, he will later pay for this transgression—and then some—with the scorn, ridicule, and judgment of his friends, colleagues, and loved ones. And yet, some of them go ahead with it anyway, men like Richard Winslow, the falling-down house of a failed poet at the center of Kevin Canty's spry third novel. As we begin, Winslow rolls into Missoula for a semester-long teaching gig. He is blocked and bloated, peppered with melanomas. If he were a car, he'd be your friend's '69 Chevy with a hole rusted in the floor and a door that doesn't close. Amazingly, he manages to meet a woman as bad off as he. Only she's 35 years younger. Winslow in Love reads like the closest equivalent to a Tom Waits song one could find between two covers. In quick succession, Winslow scares off his wife, trudges through the snow to teach Rilke to kids with undergraduate degrees from Harvard and Stanford, and meets Erika, a skinny waif so riddled with piercings "she looked like a change purse jangling." Soon they're drinking Johnnie Walker from paper cups. This is not the first time Montana writer Canty has posted his own bitter valentine to self-destruction. But whereas the cast of his 1999 novel, Nine Below Zero, had every reason to earn our sympathy, and didn't, the misfits of Winslow have a host of reasons not to, but do. His prose hits just the right tone: two parts gravel-voice resignation, one part hope. And Winslow, in spite of his misanthropic carping, comes across as genuine and humane, not so far gone as to be reckless with other people's hearts (even if he is a reckless and inveterate drunk driver). With Erika and another potential match for Winslow, the novel explores what exactly constitutes appropriate in matters of love. Coyly, cleverly, some of this is also worked out in Winslow's poetry class. On the syllabus is Rilke, where love is an angel that comes down from above—bodiless, wordless, and ethereal—like divine grace. Then there's W.H. Auden, where it comes in the form of a hard-drinking old bat who schlepps to the bar in his bathroom slippers. The point of Winslow is to say that love either ravishes you or it doesn't—it either causes you to drop everything and hit the road with a bottle of whiskey, some cigarettes, and who-knows-where for a destination, or it doesn't. We know it will end badly for the book's shambling romantic. And yet I dare you to look away. JOHN FREEMAN The Shooting: A Memoir

By Kemp Powers (Thunder's Mouth, $22) Sometimes a single traumatic event can shape the entire course of a person's life—particularly if that person is a writer. When Kemp Powers was 14, he accidentally shot his best friend in the face and watched him die an excruciating death. Now a contributor to Newsweek and Esquire (in which The Shooting first appeared in a different form), he has spent the rest of his life desperately trying to atone for this tragedy. A study in guilt, The Shooting is the chronicle of a man who lives in constant fear of mistakes, who relates all life's ordinary miseries (marital troubles, financial troubles, etc.) back to a single, youthful happenstance. When his young daughter contracts a severe fever, he thinks, "How can I be going through this again?" and, "Now . . . I'd have another death on my hands." Later, when a joyriding teenager smashes into his parked Jetta, he collapses into a nervous breakdown and resorts to banalities like, "The car had become a metaphor for my fragile psyche." This is when the memoir becomes a more self-absorbed and less important rewriting of the Book of Job. While the conflicts, hardships, and setting (1980s Brooklyn) of Powers' life are potentially interesting, he fails to do anything with his experiences outside of boasting or whining. This material is ripe for exploring issues of race, class, and violence, but he instead chooses to brag about his intimidating tae kwon do skills, his knowledge of comic books, and his accomplishments as a writer (which are visible nowhere in this book). Powers rarely appraises the greater world around him; because of this, he surrenders to the most fatal flaw of memoir writing—narcissism. ROSS SIMONINI

 
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