K Blows Top
On September 15th 1959, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was greeted by President Eisenhower and a 21-gun-salute at Andrews Air Force Base. Crowds predictably gathered in Washington in anticipation as the two leaders were driven into the city. Strangely, they stood around quietly, without showing praise, condemnation, or much reaction at all to their visitor. During the next 13 days they would have time to make up their minds, as Khrushchev took time to speak at the UN, pay a curt visit to Eleanor Roosevelt, stop by the Iowa farm of friend and fellow corn enthusiast Roswell Garst, and attend a luncheon with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. The populace and the media eventually found their voices, and a cross-country trip by the world’s preeminent Communist through the heartland of capitalism became, in Peter Carlson’s words, "the television debut of the now-familiar phenomenon of the non-stop, round-the-clock, multiday media circus."
The majority of K Blows Top focuses on the events of this trip, sandwiched between shorter sections on the Nixon-Khrushchev kitchen debate and Khrushchev’s shoe-banging at the U.N. The Soviet premier makes for an entertaining protagonist, always ready with a proverb or quip, never missing an opportunity to advocate Soviet superiority, just as comfortable hinting at nuclear war as ruminating on its horror, jovial one moment and volatile the next. Khrushchev verbally spars with his guide, Henry Cabot Lodge, throughout the trip, leading Carlson to call them "a cold war version of Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello." He delivers a red-faced rebuttal and threatens to cut his trip short in response to an antagonistic speech by Los Angeles mayor, Norris Poulson (afterwards, in his hotel, the premier feigns a tantrum for the benefit of the Americans he assumes are bugging his room). In a San Francisco supermarket, the newsmen who follow in Khrushchev’s wake clamber over displays and stand on checkout counters to get better pictures of the premier, who somehow manages to move serenely through the crowd, stopping to shake hands and chat with customers. There’s also a can-can number, sniping between politicians and diplomats, and a picture of a grinning Khrushchev hugging a smiling Fidel Castro—all courtesy of a little cold war diplomacy.
Carlson’s book deftly chronicles one of the more surreal and humorous events that took place during a tense time in U.S. and world history, and offers an insightful look at the man at their center. There’s not much more to say that K Blows Top can’t say better. It’s a good read, and with the fallout of the cold war still of such concern, it’s satisfying to see a situation in which dialogue and exchange were actually carried out, no matter the end result.
The Dolphin People
(HARPER PERENNIAL, 2009)
There are teasingly brief sentences about Torsten Krol on the cover and at the end of his latest novel, The Dolphin People, which obfuscate more than they reveal. Fortunately, The Dolphin People has more to offer than the mystery of its author’s identity. It is a compelling narrative that builds on the classic stranded-in-the-jungle tale, which Krol dislocates from the Edwardian period and deposits in the dystopian aftermath of the Second World War.
The book’s narrator, 16-year-old Erich Linden, undergoes a painful reeducation as he unlearns the lessons of his Aryan youth. With the defeat of Nazi Germany Erich and his family—proud Third Reichers—all intend to set out for a new life in the New World. Their plans are frustrated, however, when they crash-land in the remotest of jungles and are rescued by the Yayomi, who, we learn from the tribe’s resident anthropologist, venerate the fair Lindens as divine incarnations of the local river dolphin. As long as the Lindens keep up the ruse, they keep their lives.
Over the course of the novel Erich adapts enthusiastically to life in Amazonia and comes to understand the senselessness of his family’s homeland values. A series of disturbing revelations and grotesque traumas enforce this lesson. In the jungle, National Socialism is death and survival is contingent on forgetting the past. By the book’s end, Erich is left with a sober recognition of Nazism’s horrors and a meaningful friendship with the anthropologist, who is, it turns out, a German Jew. In a hopeless world, these are hopeful prospects.
Head in Flames
(CHIASMUS PRESS, 2009)
Lance Olsen’s Head in Flames is a striking, shocking kaleidoscope of three alternating voices. Written in a form of collage that uses observations, quotations, and fictions, these juxtapositions create a violent thrust that drives us uncontrollably toward an already known and fateful end where, Olsen writes, “nothing is unexpected any longer.”
As in previous works, Olsen binds the process of art (its creation) with its final form (the book itself). At the same time, Olsen reminds us that life is a tale told by an idiot. His fiction reveals a limitless fascination with human flaws, exposing us to what we really are: foolish, crazed, and perhaps occasionally lovable. Indeed, Head in Flames enforces “an important certainty about life: love is a choice you make from instant to instant.”
Artists take risks—or just reflect what is real—and sometimes pay dearly for it. Olsen’s book explores this theme within the context of global politics and religious fundamentalism across multiple generations, beginning in the 19th century with Vincent van Gogh, a figure in “ultramarine drill jacket sans collar, sans tie. Floppy straw hat. Baggy pants, beat-up shoes, rotting teeth, receding chin, butchered earlobe. At thirty-seven.” The second voice comes in the form of Vincent’s brother’s great-grandson Theo van Gogh, a 20th century filmmaker who collaborated with Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali on a film critical of the Muslim subjugation of women. This van Gogh was murdered on a Dutch street by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan with alleged terrorist ties; after all, “You don’t need language to pull your fist from your pocket.”
The interlacing generational network of artists in Head in Flames is evident, but the more important issue raised is how fundamentalist attitudes and beliefs murder attempts at art in any society or culture. When religion takes precedence in dangerous extremes, art and its makers become suspect. “Fundamentalism in all its forms—Christian, Jewish, Muslim: the socially sanctioned excuse to abandon all humor.” Bouyeri, the novel’s third voice, expresses outrage at the work of the second van Gogh: “They pretend language is spirit rising between your lips but it is really a bony black cat with a broken back heaped among garbage bags in the alley.”
Head in Flames makes clear that to deny political realities, to refuse to admit that tolerance does not work, is to accept death: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
In the world of contemporary fiction, Lance Olsen is a rock star. Head in Flames confirms that his is a rebel yell that demands to be heard.
—RENÉE E. D’AOUST
Love in Infant Monkeys
(SOFT SKULL, 2009)
Celebrities and animals collide in Lydia Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys, a collection of stories which breeds pure invention with historical fiction. The celebrities are real and the content is based in part on actual events, but Millet bases the work’s sometimes poignant interior monologues and the motives of its celebrity-characters on an excessively tabloidesque understanding of their lives.
In the opening story “Sexing the Pheasant,” Madonna wanders the English countryside, hunting fowl and internally correcting her own vain thoughts to think and act more British. By combining Madonna’s self-obsessed nature with her empathy for other celebrities’ unconventional spiritual pursuits, like scientology, Millet successfully crafts a woman so deeply enthralled by her own fame, she suffers delusions of grandeur that are nearly pathological.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book lacks the momentum and cleverness of “Sexing the Pheasant.” In “The Lady and the Dragon,” for example, a billionaire tries to lure Sharon Stone to his home in Indonesia by purchasing the Komodo dragon that once attacked her now ex-husband. Unable to contact Stone’s agent, his assistant hires a Vegas impersonator of Stone to come to Indonesia, where she later becomes the billionaire’s concubine. The story takes one too many bizarre leaps; without a sympathetic central character, there is little beyond the sensational to keep a skeptical audience reading.
Love in Infant Monkeys, while alternately laugh-out-loud funny and mind-numbingly weird, wastes too many pages on convoluted plot twists and one-dimensional characters. The attempt to marry celebrities and animals feels forced; the characters display such an abundance of human flaws—alcoholism, violent tempers, extreme vanity, misogyny—that their hollowed-out caricatures fail to inspire an attachment on the part of the reader. Without a doubt, Millet’s stories are the product of an immense creative energy. Had they more depth, they would be more compelling; without it, Love in Infant Monkeys is an overrun zoo.
Ron Carlson’s novel about love and ranching life in Wyoming is a short, fun gallop through the relationship of Mack and Vonnie (as well as Mack and Yarnell, Mack and his father, Mack and Mack). Mack, a hand on the family ranch, met Vonnie, a musician, when they were teenagers. He was leading guided horse rides for wealthy vacationers, she was a wealthy vacationer: Dirty Dancing on a ranch instead of Kellerman’s resort. She fell in love with both him and the idea of him, a strapping young cowboy. He just fell in love with her, a smart, strong, beautiful woman. They kept in touch during college, and met again as adults to continue this fairytale romance.
Carlson keeps this from becoming a cliché cowboy song by making Mack a desperate hustler. The family ranch is in the weeds, and Carlson sees this as an opportunity to get Mack involved in scams and drug runs for Yarnell, the town scumbag, trying to stay afloat while cheating and drinking to kill his marriage. Vonnie has to make a decision between the fantasy of Mack the Cowboy and Kent, a wealthy man, who happens to have had altercations with Mack. Continuing the theme of romance, Mack and Vonnie meet up for their annual hiking trip, only Mack has two ulterior motives: winning Vonnie back, and making some money tracking some mysterious aircraft debris for Yarnell.
The details of ranching life and horses adds an educated, well-researched element to this otherwise light, story about love gone sour. Carlson’s use of realistic dialogue, honest interpersonal relationships, the twist of random airplane remnants and of foot soldiers chasing these wild, crazy lovebirds around the mountain throws some grit into this cowboy romance.