The Star
of Algiers

Aziz Chouaki
Ros Schwartz,
Lulu Norman,

(Graywolf Press)
Normally, I don't think that you or I would be very interested in a 1990s rock star from Algeria who lives in a three-room apartment with fourteen members of his family, who dresses in glitter shirts and slacks and moccasins with beads. His life would not be of much interest to us, especially with his passion for Michael Jackson, Jimmy Hendrix, Madonna, Prince, Elvis and MTV and the other detritus of 1990s culture.

But there is more to the story. The juxtaposition of his garbage-infested apartment, the drugs and the kids (and the kids selling drugs) and the masses of humanity waiting in line for bread, food, visas, entertainment mixes well with a chance that comes for Moussa to raise himself out of the trash and the ghetto, to be a glittering star, to be a star like Prince in his dream America which he has never seen and never will see.

This is a 30-year-old Algerian who detests his culture and the fundamentalist talibs, a man who shows a passion for his music --- no matter how derivative --- and we and his Algiers idolaters come to like his style, his fire, his bringing the audience to tears, the dinars being heaped on the stage. He has style. And hope. To escape the "Mer et Soliel housing project, brutal buildings mired in mountains of refuse." His dream is to flee with his music and his art to Paris, to New York, to Hollywood.

We are immersed in the classic tale of a poor one gone rich, spending all his dinars on clothes and limousines and whiskey and drugs --- giving a bit to his miserable brothers and sisters and diabetic mother. The apartment building "is a war zone, letterboxes spewing their guts, walls and staircases crumbling. Kids, kids, and more kids." By comparison, preparing for one of his venues,

    Now for the hair, the crucial last stage. Carefully remove the towel, a blob of gel and brush vigorously. Allow the gel to penetrate every hair. Then, take the wide-toothed comb, and gently sculpt the locks, the curls. It's all glossy, beautiful, shimmering fantasy.

Then to Le Triangle, the poshest of clubs, "Art Déco-style, sensual lighting. It's like being in a private club in New York."

§     §     §

Moussa is on a terrible ride. All the way (almost) to the top of the Algerian music scene, but there is a conspiracy, a conspiracy of revolutionary change in the form of the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Front. They, the fundamentalists are trying to overthrow the now decadent FLN (those who won the war against French colonials, took power from the pied-noirs). The FIS comes complete with demonstrations, chaos, revolution, political assassination. Moussa doesn't want, doesn't understand, doesn't care about revolution, or The Koran, or the jihad or hijabs. (At one point, he assaults a teacher that demands that his sister wear the veil.) All he wants is to be famous as Moussa MASSY, singer.

Whether he wants it or not, though, the revolution will destroy the world that was to make him a star, complete with dope, booze and women who won't leave him alone. But with the FIS's opposition to everything he has gained, and the loss of four-year chaste love, Fatiha, he comes to the fall, and to spend his days on the streets, consuming speed and zombretto --- ethanol and grenadine, ugh.

At the end, Moussa will taste then lose the rich freedom of Paris. Waiting in line at the embassy to get his visa, he fights with and ends up beating to death a bearded fundamentalist. He and his musical career ends up in the filth of El Harrach prison.

§     §     §

It's not easy to let this one go. The life is so smarmy or so deliciously decadent that we are immersed in it. It is an eye on the new Algeria. Moussa is a poor boy made good by his talent and drive, destroyed by his pride and the new and the old social order. Fatiha is forced by her family to marry an engineer; his trip to France is thwarted by the immigration office (four times); Le Triangle turns seedy and smelly; and Moussa becomes, at age thirty-five, a haggard street druggie.

So far so good. But author Chouaki cannot let his hero go. In an epilogue --- five-and-a-half pages --- Moussa stumbles onto The Koran, quickly converts, becomes a powerful Islamic sage, worshipped by thousands of followers. He escapes from prison moves into the hills, "organizes attacks, slits the victims' throats with his own hand, and curses the west."

No. It's too easy, too quick, too contrary to the style of our bitter, artistic Moussa: the one who we have spent so much time coming to know, and to almost care for.

--- Nicholas Kulukundis

Ed McBain
(87th Precinct Mystery)






And yes, a page-turner. I was a bit disgusted with myself for getting hooked on it, but I did.

I've read two or three other 87th Precinct mysteries. Engaged while I'm reading, but almost immediately forgetting them. So if you have the taste, this will satisfy, but Ed McBain is no Raymond Chandler, Sara Paretsky or Lawrence Block.

Preposterous? A criminal mastermind not only carefully plans a successful crime, but taunts the police with dozens of anagrams, palindromes and riddles based on Shakespeare's writings.

Shallow? The characters riff on human foibles --- sexual harassment, racism, infidelity, injustice, bad coffee --- but it reads like the evening news: pan to the flames and wreckage; sports after this message.

Flimsy? Sub-plots of middling interest threaten to become more interesting than the story itself. Will the plodding fat racist cop with the Puerto Rican cop girlfriend catch the mastermind's accomplice? Is the geeky white cop with the beautiful black M.D. girlfriend going to destroy the relationship out of jealousy, or is it gone already? Is the brainy whore going to get whacked?

Even the Shakespeare is thin. Google them; quote a few lines. Give us the play title. On to next quote. If Shakespeare were vermouth, we'd have a martini very dry.

What's to like? Well, Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, whose first book was The Blackboard Jungle) has a spare prose style that stays out of the way of the story, like Clint Eastwood's acting style. He keeps the story moving, in bite-size chunks, so if you are bored by one scene, it won't be for long. A mechanical technique, effective with a pedestrian plot.

My advice: if you don't have the 87th Precinct habit, don't start now. If you do, this book will satisfy while you read it. Once you put it down, however, you may wonder why you picked it up.

--- Robin Harris

Jim Crace
In Jim Grace's Genesis, we're introduced to Felix Dern, actor, a lover, and progenitor of too many children. Dern cannot sleep with a woman without impregnating her. Is it magic? A curse? A seed with which to bring down the manufacturers of contraceptives? No:

    The explanation is mundane. The Contraceptive Lix [Felix] had readied and slipped beneath the bed had let the lovers down and either Lix had spilled his semen or Lix had pulled on the sheath too late. Or their lovemaking might have dragged the contraceptive loose, shortened it and buckled it, like ankle socks, cold and corrugated on his shrinking penis end. Or they had stayed with it just half in place for far too long after he'd ejaculated, allowing his emissions to leak and seep and fertilize.

The "how" really doesn't matter. It just is. Not only with Lix but every single woman he passes the night with. For Crace's hero, having child after child is only a diaper with number two in it compared to the crap instigated by having such a curse; namely, the fear of sex.

In one scene he and his wife are playing a game. Which woman in the cafe would he like to sleep with? Scenarios play in his head that all come to the same conclusion: cheating is out of the question, unless he wants to be a father. Squared.

The city in which all this happens is labeled the City of Kisses. It is the stage for Dern, from pubescent to professional actor/sperm donor. We are privy to the mildly X-rated scenes of his conjugal trysts. The City of Kisses lends itself to a small subplot as well: it is undergoing revolution and rioting. It all comes back full circle, and --- for a change, at least for this book --- is fun. The way it intertwines with the life of our hero is masterful.

There are some minor insightful ironies regarding the "...bitter joy of acting."

    It was the business of not being yourself, but knowing you could only be your best when you were being someone else.

That's pretty much Lix Dern. (I keep wanting to type Bruce Dern; in fact, he's the face of Felix Dern, complete with an emasculating but irresistible birthmark on his cheek).

Read this one if you like M. Kundera and have read everything he has written and want to find something that will make you want to read your favorite Kundera again. However, for this critic, I've learned that Crace certainly makes one more aware of time. Passing so slowly. Like ketchup. Snailing out of a bottle.

Kudos to him, for a job ... done.

--- Leopold Daronov
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