Peel My Love
Like an Onion

Ana Castillo
Carmen Santos has vowed to be a flamenco dancer. Her teacher and lover is Augustín. Since she was crippled in one leg by polio when she was growing up, flamenco is not necessarily what you would call the easiest calling for her, but she becomes a star (in Chicago!) and even gives lessons to tired housewives. When the beautiful scoundrel Augustín runs back in Spain to be with his wife --- the baby, which he also gave Carmen, spontaneously aborts. Then she falls in love with his Augustín's godson, Manolo.

"I was in Germany doing my last gig," she laments.

    Nothing sadder than a washed-up dancer. I was beyond sad. One day you turn thirty-six years old. The sum of your education is a high school diploma. No other skills but to dance as a gimp flamenco dancer...

We would like to introduce Ana Castillo, or Carmen Santos, or either or both of them, to mehitabel, of archy and mehitabel fame. Mehitabel doesn't say "I was beyond sad." She says, "Toujours gai."

It's easy, we do believe, to write about the sheer horror of living. Many have done it. But it is art to write about the sheer horror of living which is, at the same time, touched by the spirit of survival, finding, even, joy in that survival. As another somewhat more famous Chicago writer put it, writing about yet another case of polio in Studs Lonigan, "I can't do it and I do it."

The only saving grace we can find in Peel My Love Like an Onion is the title. A back cover puff piece tells us that Castillo's writing "is a union between One Hundred Years of Solitude and 'General Hospital.'" Perhaps there is another One Hundred Years of Solitude by some other Márquez --- Freddy Márquez? --- that they've not yet told us about.

Pages read: 66
Total pages in book: 213

--- Carlos Amantea

Caryn James

Glorie is eighty years old, was born in the Azores, and came to the United States with her family when she was four. She has been married and widowed, lives across the street from her daughter Louisa and son-in-law Patrick, CPA --- and she's losing it a bit. She watches Oprah, the pope at Christmas Mass, and wishes she had been more like Wallis Simpson, Elizabeth Taylor, Scarlett O'Hara or Lucille Ball.

Her husband Jack has been in the grave a long time, so each day she comes home to talk to him. She gossips with him about the past, their marriage, their children, grandchildren, and in-laws. He's a solid type, probably didn't cheat on her when he was still around, and makes astute comments to her gossip.

The author of Glorie has worked at The New York Times for many years, first as film reviewer, and now as chief television critic. Except for the job connection, we can think of no good reason in the world why the Times would list Glorie as a NYT Notable Book, and give it rave reviews ("Wrenching and funny. An especially stirring and charming novel...")

We managed to make it to Chapter Six before dozing off, like Glorie does when she watches Oprah. We suspect the novel got murdered in the crib not by its characters, nor by its story-line --- but by its writing style. Ms. James has been writing film, TV, and book reviews for the good grey Times for so long that she's forgotten how to put a bit of glissando in her prose. Glorie is a victim of the journalistic style of the most esteemed newspaper in America --- which means that it makes no difference if you are doing International News, Arts, Sports or the Obits --- your language has better be simple, direct, and tediously free of any hint of whimsy.

There are moments where Ms. James almost gets the old literary engine revved up and running. Glorie embarks on a hare-brained scheme to snare Steve, the local bus driver, who takes her about on Tuesdays and Fridays. She dresses up, and when she gets on the bus, he says, "Glad you're dressed for the weather in that pretty blue coat. It's getting nippy out."

Like all who are lonely, and want love, she begins to analyze every word he says to her. "He said pretty. Does that mean something?" She has visions of the bus pulling in her driveway, him coming into the house, a friendly dialogue in the kitchen. She worries about what she is going to say to him. When she goes to get off the bus, he turns away, and she realizes that she has been --- like most of us when we are chasing a will-'o-the-wisp --- acting an idiot.

Outside of a few choice warm spots like this, most of Glorie is a case of the chillblains. If Ms. James wants to embark on the improbable career of a novelist, perhaps she should take a few months off from the editorial rat race, get the hell out of the Hamptons, and read what other writers have done with age. There's Nabokov's Pnin. There are the superb cast of characters in Momenti Mori. Or, best, The Horses' Mouth: Gully Jimson is a first-rate geezer, as eccentric and funny as they come. Perhaps it's because Joyce Carey had better sense than to be hammering out reviews to line the canary cage. He spent his life writing like a master, and mastering the English language.

Ms. James would certainly benefit by abandoning The Official Style Book of the New York Times long enough to investigate, for a change, the theory and practice of original geeze fiction.

§     §     §

A BRIEF FURTHER NOTE: They must be planning for this to be some kind of text-book for long-suffering students. "Questions for discussion" (pp 9 - 12, after a Caryn James puff-piece interview with anonymous questioner) are a gas, vide, Was Glorie a good mother to Louisa? and What stereotypes do we have about old people...? It put us right back in Mrs. Friedlander's eleventh grade English class, where we spent our days listening to her drone on about Hawthorne and watching the flies mate noisily on the glass window overlooking the parking lot.

Pages read: 130
Total number of pages: 229

--- Wendy Schott

Boy with
Loaded Gun

A Memoir
Lewis Nordan
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)

They say that if you are truly screwed up --- you will end up in organized religion, or as a psychologist, or as a writer. Nordan is an excellent example of the latter.

He is plainly a self-destructive addictive personality, whether it's his addiction to women, to alcohol, to anti-social behavior or, worst of all, to making words.

Fortunately for those of us who are addicted to reading words --- as a writer he's good, he's original, he's witty. He can be sad, funny, smart, smart-ass, and smarting. You pick him up to read a page, and you find you've done a hundred, and you don't want to stop, because the ups and downs of it are so much like what we fondly call life.

This memoir starts with the death of his father when he was a year-and-a-half old, then moves quickly to a discussion of his 5th Grade Teacher, Miss Alberta, who tells her class one day that she was "born with no vagina."

    I looked up. I looked about me, at the faces of my classmates. Had others heard the same words? I could not tell. No one broke into hysterical laughter. No one wept...I saw small spots before my eyes. Born with no vagina. The words formed in the air. She had said what she had said.

If we could have a symbol for this memoir, it probably probably would be a missing vagina. Or, better, a roller coaster. From Miss Alberta ("Maybe she said she was born in Virginia...") to tales of his stepfather who drank. From his father's love affair with a midget, to the death of Emmett Till. From being locked out of his hotel room in New York City --- buck naked --- to eloping with his college love.

From a good marriage to cheating on his wife (with a hippy lady, shacking up on hairy blankets, used by the dog) to the pits of alcoholism. From AA to a new radiant love, and then, the suicide of his son. It's a roller coaster: at times it goes up at an amazing angle, at times it falls so fast you think it'll break your heart.

It's not one but a series of shaggy dog stories --- with this caveat: Lewis Nordan is different than almost any writer in this genre (Tom Robbins, for example) because Nordan knows when to stop. He is describing, for instance, cheating on his second wife, Annie with Susan, whose a bit daffy. He decides to put an end to his affair:

    I said, "Susan, darling ---"

    She said, "I like it when you give me the ax." She was serious. She said, "Giving me the ax always makes you feel better about yourself. All I ever wanted was for you to be happy."

    I said, "Please respect my wishes in this, Susan, and stop using that expression, please."

    She said, "The number of times you give me the ax is the measure of your love for Annie. I love you for loving Annie enough to give me the ax so many times."

    I said, "Jesus, Susan. It makes me feel terrible to give you the ax. Really, terrible."

    Susan cried for a short time, deeply but without much sound. She said, "I've never loved anyone so much in my life as I love you."

    I knew that Susan was not entirely sane --- maybe it is more accurate to say she had no balance in her life --- and it was possible not to want to hold her and tell her I loved her, even though I didn't.

    I said, "I love you, Susan..."

    I looked at Susan and thought that I did love her. She was tall and slender and green-eyed and flat-chested and her hair was cut very short. She cut her hair herself --- chopped at it with shears --- and she called it her mongoloid idiot cut. For all her beauty, she did look a little moronic. Her earrings were blue plastic replicas of the Empire State Building...

What Nordan does here is to build on all we know about him so far. That he's a alcoholic, self-lacerating scoundrel; that he's a romantic; that he uses words to confuse others, and, occasionally, himself. Nordan creates, in thirteen pages, in the short story of the end of the affair with Susan, a jewel --- a small jewel set in the ring (if we may); not the ring of the Neibilung, but, more, a ring-around-the-rosy (if we may).

It is shaggy dog stuff --- but, like a good extended exegesis, it carries enough potential for surprise (will he break up with Susan, or will his groin win out again?), enough detail (she blows her nose on a paper napkin, then uses it to sop up her spilled coffee) so that we never want it to end.

I said somewhere up there that Nordan, or, for the purposes of this memoir, Buddy, is "self-lacerating," and the phrase is right out of The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky is such a master because as we get into it, not only is he a great story teller, not only does everyone have a screw loose here or there, but most of all, we always find pieces of ourselves in his characters --- whether it be Alyosha, Dimitri, Ivan, or Ferdyakov --- or even lewd old Karamazov himself. There may be only one main character in Boy with Loaded Gun --- but he contains enough Dostoyevskian madness, agony, and self-abuse for all of us.

--- Pat Worley


Go Home    Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up