This Week's Reads

Franz Wisner, Ayun Halliday, Wesley Stace, Carole Cadwalladr, Lydia Millet, and The Best in Rock Fiction.

Honeymoon with My Brother

By Franz Wisner (St. Martin's, $23.95) In the waning years of the last century, Franz Wisner had a really crappy year. His career as a lobbyist for a California developer was quickly becoming downwardly mobile, his vast office was being replaced by a tiny cubicle, and his fiancée decided to call off their wedding just before the ceremony. Dumped and depressed, Wisner hatched an escape plan—invite his brother Kurt, who was between jobs, to accompany him on the aborted honeymoon to Costa Rica. Then why not leave everything behind and travel for a year, maybe two? Their resulting two-year adventure took the brothers from Prague to Damascus to Lombok, Angkor Wat, Machu Pichu, Botswana, and many points between. Though it's an irresistible premise, Wisner is a less-than-inspiring writer. Much of the book dwells on the failed marriage-to-be and relations with his brother. No doubt this sort of soul searching was invaluable to the author's mental health, but it's about as interesting as sitting in on a support group with complete strangers. That said, Wisner brings a wry perspective to the whole backpacker circuit. As a former PR man for California Gov. Pete Wilson and a big-business lobbyist, he's an unlikely vagabond. "You're a Republican," he tells himself before joining the great unwashed hordes tramping the world in Teva sandals. "You just don't do this." Yet this outsider's perspective yields dead-on descriptions of the backpacker culture of "book exchanges, chai teas, deep-tissue massages, Internet hookups, [and] hemp clothing." And he's obviously a fiscal conservative rather than a social one—he's not above an occasional sexual dalliance with a fellow traveler. But beyond the Lonely Planet circuit (and he comes to loathe the whole guidebook lemming culture), Wisner experiences sincere travel epiphanies. In the African nation of Malawi, as he encounters generous humor and hospitality amid dire poverty, Wisner begins to feel a bit of remorse for the pyramids of shrimp and endlessly flowing Scotch he once witnessed at the Republican National Convention. As often happens with long-term travel, Wisner has his perspective on the world changed. He learns to ditch his guidebook and get all his information through conversation—and in the process meets a host of characters valiantly struggling to make ends meet in a rapidly globalized world. "Travel is the only investment with guaranteed returns," he concludes, and he's right. In Australia and Europe, taking a year off to see the world is an accepted rite of passage. Here in the States, it's seen as an eccentric life choice. Hell, our own president bragged about never having traveled to Europe before he was elected. Here's to more Americans following Wisner's example and discovering how the rest of the world lives. ANDREW ENGELSON Franz and Kurt Wisner will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., April 14. Job Hopper: The Checkered Career of a Down-Market Dilettante

By Ayun Halliday (Seal Press, $14.95) Sometimes, late at night, vivid memories of previous jobs I've held haunt me. I see myself in high school counting slice after slice of pepperoni, ensuring that I don't rip off diners by giving them 79 pieces instead of the promised 80. I can recall aimlessly wandering around a hellish clothing store, working as a sales associate, lost in a sea of khaki (my absolute least favorite material) and constantly being ribbed for my lack of aggressiveness with the prepped-out customers. But none of my memories compares to the various indignities described by Ayun Halliday in Job Hopper, where each vibrant chapter relates a different horrible gig, from being a bartender who can't live up to the billing "Kamikaze Girl" to a brief stint as a nude model for pretentious art students to being "Bert" (with a giant puppet head) for a Sesame Street mall appearance with wailing children clinging to her crotch. Professionally speaking, she's done it all—generally wearing something incredibly unflattering for little pay and no benefits, under a crazy bitch of a boss. Beginning with a chapter in which the excitement of working as a museum guard drives the author to converse with her windbreaker's zipper (which she compares to a one-eyed duck's head), we join the journey of a woman who refuses to be defined by any of her strange jobs. Instead, she sees even the most obscure occupation as a chance to define herself—mainly in opposition to what she does for money. Halliday emphasizes how it's possible to preserve one's sense of self even in the worst of circumstances (like trying to maintain control of 30 screaming-banshee schoolchildren, few of whom speak English, as a substitute teacher). Her humor, intelligence, and even tenderness turn each dismal professional stop into a laugh-out-loud vignette. Job Hopper also serves as a kind of warning: Be careful of how you treat the help when you next shop at the Gap; that miserable employee folding khakis just might mention you in her book. HEATHER LOGUE Ayun Halliday will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Mon., April 18. Misfortune

By Wesley Stace (Little, Brown, $23.95) Based on a ballad he wrote in 1997 under his musical pen name, John Wesley Harding, Wesley Stace's debut novel, Misfortune, is both self-consciously old and self-consciously new. Packed full of plot and colorful characters, it's rooted in the 19th-century English novel. With sudden loss of social station, a mixture of high and low society, families turned against one another, and disclosures of secret paternity, the book owes an obvious debt to Dickens (including its style), but Stace, a former Ph.D. candidate in English literature, knows other, newer traditions, too. Misfortune's orphan hero, Rose, is born a boy and raised to think he's a girl. A transvestite with ambiguous sexual identity and impulses is fine in a modern context (see Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex), but what about in Victorian England? Rose's father, Lord Loveall, is a likely homosexual living before Wilde and the love that dare not speak its name. He's obsessed with a sister who died in childhood; sole heir to an enormous fortune (with greedy relatives on every side), he finds abandoned Rose and makes him a surrogate for the long-dead sibling. Conveniently marrying a servant, Lord Loveall maintains the illusion of a conventional family until Rose hits adolescence. Then the bonnet and skirts no longer fit his downy lip and bulging crotch. The novel is a pretty good fit, however, so far as routine reading pleasure goes: Rose confronts many challenges, endures a painful exile, and finally returns to face his tormenters (chiefly those greedy cousins). Rose narrates, mainly in the first person, but with a self-awareness that sometimes betrays Stace's modern project. In lit-crit speak, Rose is an indeterminate subject, despised because he upsets the binary sexual order of things. He identifies with Ovid's story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, lamenting, "I am made for another world. I am at odds with myself." Similarly, when Stace invokes concepts like the "unconscious mind" (which didn't exist then), Misfortune's period sensibilities clash. After various adventures, including a journey to Turkey and the mythic spring of Salmacis, Rose returns to find refuge in London: "This was our table—fugitives, exiles, and nonconformists." It sounds like a meeting of the LGBT chapter in the Castro. Stace also adds ballads to the text, with plans for a spin-off CD this July, meaning you could essentially wait for the abridged audio version of the novel. Or he may play some of these songs following his local reading (see details below). Those impatient with the book's tardy pace will also fault the rather passive Rose, who's constantly in need of rescue. Those with more time on their hands won't mind a little sex, murder, and cross-dressing added to their Dickens. At least Stace avoided the temptation to call it Olivia Twist. BRIAN MILLER Wesley Stace will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Tues., April 19. As musician John Wesley Harding, he'll perform with the Minstrel in the Galleries at the Sunset Tavern (5433 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206-784-4880), 9:30 p.m. Tues., April 19. 21 and over. $7. The Family Tree

By Carole Cadwalladr (Dutton, $23.95) "There are some problems with my story," announces Rebecca Monroe, 60 pages into Carole Cadwalladr's busily clever debut novel. The Family Tree retells Rebecca's family story, and our thirtysomething narrator has just re-created the moment when her grandmother meets her black lover in a hospital ward. As soon as the scene closes, however, Rebecca begins poking holes in her straightforward rendition of it: "For example, how do I know what Councilor Anderson was thinking? Or who's to say that Sister Weston was pleased with 'perturbances'?" This narrative antsiness runs throughout Family Tree like some kind of poisonous insecticide that has caused certain parts of Rebecca's story to flourish beyond natural abilities, crowding other parts out. She has a heartbreaking story to tell—on the day of Charles and Diana's wedding, her mother locked herself in the bathroom and committed suicide. But it is the machinery of storytelling, not her own real emotions, that interests her. Fair enough; the modern novel has become an essentially self-reflexive art, but there's a flickering human warmth lacking here. Rebecca is married to an oafish geneticist whose theories about nurture versus nature become a kind of template for the book's action, which proceeds in numbered sections like a scientific proof or academic thesis. As it just so happens, Rebecca is an academic herself, at work on Sex and Suburbia: How the Sixties Became the Seventies. Thus, as we hear how she once ducked and dodged her mother's increasingly wild moods, her footnotes describe the movies and television shows of the time, from Dallas to the British predecessor to Three's Company. Oh, and there are also definitions of words that prove important in each section, like "fate," "chance," "sister," "pregnant," "repercussion," "marry," and so on. Perhaps such gambits are meant to flatter our intelligence—"You'll see through these themes and characters anyway," Cadwalladr is confiding—but they feel deeply patronizing. And destructive. Every time we get close to caring about these characters, Cadwalladr manufactures another technical rupture in the performance, and poof, the magic's gone. It's an oddly passive-aggressive storytelling technique for a fictional memoir. (With a real memoir by, say, Dave Eggers, the distractions are more organic.) In a made-up Family Tree, there are no facts to adhere to or respect—just the audience's attention. If Rebecca wants to prove that biology is not our destiny, we get it. But if she—or Cadwalladr—is doggedly determined to show that the novel can exist without a suspension of disbelief, it can't. As in science, when you break things down that far, all you have are X's and Y's, or zeros and ones, like so many words on the page. JOHN FREEMAN Everyone's Pretty

By Lydia Millet (Soft Skull, $13) Lydia Millet is a capable writer, able to birth sentences with pleasant dips and bows, but these do little to assuage Everyone's Pretty, a slapdash farce with rancid characters and a forced plot. The setting for her fourth novel is Los Angeles, which isn't used any more intimately than a background set in an old Western movie. Lousy with polluted sunsets and broken souls, the City of Angels is again relegated to an uninspired reference point for all things depraved. Five main characters intersect, or come close, in a showdown of sorts based loosely around Dean Decetes, a silver-tongued pornographer with a steel gullet. Drinking whiskey and pronouncing himself "the Godhead" (much to the horror of his pious sister Bucella), Dean starts at the bottom, which makes the rest of his adventures, including those with his midget sidekick, Ken, a great heaping of moot points. Bucella, meanwhile, entertains fantasies about her boss and tries to save the wife of one of her co-workers, a woman who barely stirs our concerns as she appears in every scene either naked, wasted, or in half-witted conjugal commitment with Dean. The only character who somewhat manages to communicate the book's themes of alienation without lapsing into complete repellency is Alice, another of Bucella's co-workers. Her troubled family life actually lends some credence, but it gets lost in the clutter of Pretty's rather frantic three-day plot. When other characters are beating parrots to a pulp or mummifying corpses, Alice's small but important insights are all too easily missed: "One day," she thinks, " . . . she would watch the fractured splinters of her will fuse again, a perfect sphere of resolve. It would illuminate her landscape like the noonday sun." Millet's characters live their lives in the dankest pools of human existence; by the time a few rays cast down on the lucky, no one is left to care. MARGARET WAPPLER The Best in Rock Fiction

Edited by June Skinner Sawyers and Anthony DeCurtis (Hal Leonard, $16.95) Was it Frank Zappa who said writing about music was like dancingabout architecture? Whoever it was, we've seen plenty of writers try to span the unbridgeable opposites, to unite the immediacy of hearing music with the critical distance of reading about it. For every success (E.M. Forster's evocation of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in Howard's End, Jack Kerouac's hymns to jazz in On the Road), you can count dozens of great authors who couldn't get the mystery onto the page. That's one of the things to like about music, how well it eludes analysis. That's criticism; then there's fiction— 21 stories and excerpts here that use rock music as an inspiration or subject. Lesser entries in this anthology make rock a background for the usual stories of family dysfunction and romantic bewilderment. But for every piece of drunken hopelessness with Bruce Springsteen on the radio, there is another that gets the music right somehow. In "Burn Me Up," Tom Piazza absolutely nails the befuddled hostility of a rockabilly legend 30 years into his decline, unable to understand why fans keep coming back to his shows no matter how badly he acts. And an excerpt from Madison Smartt Bell's novel Anything Goes pulls off an even tougher trick, effectively putting the reader onstage, guitar in hand, mystery girl watching. Roddy Doyle's The Commitments and P.F. Kluge's Eddie and the Cruisers were both made into films, and the excerpts here show why. Other writers in the volume include Nick Hornby, Don DeLillo, Jeffrey Eugenides, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and Sherman Alexie, whose Reservation Blues passage is a sharp and very funny portrait of an Indian rock band, but says little about actual music. The biggest disappointment has to be "Rock-and-Roll Fantasy" by Ray Davies, whose work with the Kinks made him one of the most revered songwriters of the British Invasion. How could the author of "Waterloo Sunset" and "Lola" have such a cloth ear for dialogue? PETER SPENCER

 
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