Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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On a single day in June a man named Bloom wanders the city, only this time it’s Walt Whitman’s city, Herman Melville’s city, the city of five boroughs, and the day is in the present, a now spliced between the now of the real world and the now of a novel about that very same now. We have two protagonists, then: Larry Bloom, who has written a manuscript, chapters of which intersperse with chapters about its author’s peregrinations; and Starshine Hart, who is the central character in that manuscript but is also a real girl in the real world, on a real bicycle, making her own wandering way through New York City on a day that will end with a date between the two. Get it? “‘I’ve written this book,’ he says. ‘It’s a novel about you. About your life on the day I tell you how I feel. About today.... I wanted to tell you that I love you and that I’ve written a book for you and now I’ll shut up, before I make any more of a fool of myself, and I’ll let you determine my fate.’” That is one way to frame the conceit—Bloom’s words in one of the chapters from the novel that is not entirely in Bloom’s words.
Yet this book is also a tour of the city, in layers, with an eye toward literary history and a poetics of place, a texture. We see the city through the eyes of these two characters—a beautiful girl, at once aware of how her beauty marks her in the lustful eyes of the metropolis and yet also aware of the ephemeral quality of her allure; an aspiring author, struggling through rejections and pacing his way through this important single day with a sealed letter from a literary agency inside his pocket. The city reflects reverberates with the concerns of these two. Battery Park hums with some “primal impulse,” “a dynamo of panting and groping. This desire is not the tender affection of evening, the wistful intimacy of the twilight’s last gleam. It is raw, concupiscent hunger.” Bloom, leading a tour, muses on the Dutch history of the place, but also on all the writers who rode out their obsessions around these locales, “all mulish, all muddling, all fighting the dark phantoms of boredom and fatigue and isolation. And for what? An old woman, a butterfly, a flock of craven pigeons? Not that. Of course, not that. Not even for a girl named Starshine. They dream of something grander, something immutable, something to transcend their own hunger and want and sacrifice. They dream of immortality.” The flip-side of eternal life presents itself as an option, too. Here’s Appel’s Bloom on the Brooklyn Bridge:
To the bankrupt poet, to the jilted lover, to anyone who yearns to elude the doubt within and the din without, the tidal strait between Manhattan Island and her favorite suburb offers the specious illusion of easy death. Melville prepared for the plunge from the breakwater on the South Street promenade, Whitman at the railing of the outbound ferry, both men redeemed by some Darwinian impulse, maybe some epic vision, which enabled them to change leaden water into lyric wine. Hart Crane rejected the limpid estuary for the brackish swirl of the Caribbean Sea. In each generation, from Washington Irving’s to Truman Capote’s, countless young men of promise and talent have examined the rippling foam between the nation’s literary furnace and her literary playground, questioning whether the reams of manuscript in their Brooklyn lofts will earn them garlands in Manhattan’s salons and ballrooms, wavering between the workroom and the water.
The strength of the book lies in detailing, in small descriptions and how they fit together into a perfect, mosaic-worked whole. The lobby of the Dolphin Credit Union, like “a discount wing at the Museum of Natural History. Glass display cases and dioramas line the exterior walls, exhibiting badger skeletons and arrow heads, elucidating the hibernation cycles of birch mice and the courtship rituals of crayfish,” for instance, or Starshine fucked to orgasm, “an angry gale” in which she “blocks out everything but the contours of his chest, his arms, the feel of flesh against flesh and sweat lathering her stomach and the violent energy building between them... The entire universe around her in a deafening eruption of flesh and hair and fluids—and then she is through, over, lost in silence. All she can hear is Jack’s hard breathing and the incessant labor of someone behind her head, on the opposite side of the plaster, pounding the wall with what sounds like the sole of a shoe. She is too content to be ashamed.” An Armenian florist promises good luck with a pineapple, some roses; a man searches—like a character from Camus—for the perfect sentence. There is even a preacher of a new religion, one that, suitably, has to do with desire, allure, sex:
...the reason that the Society for Secular Harmony resembles a Bryn Mawr class reunion is that the bishop, despite his bulbous nose and drooping ears, is hot as hell. On the street, of course, you’d walk past him. His physical attributes are few and far between. Yet behind his bully pulpit, engaged in his daily ritual of vainglorious self-denunciation, His Mystic Eminence acquires a magnetism that is part arch-patriot, part arch-revolutionary, part rising caudillo. He is Fidel and Eldridge Cleaver and Reverend Moon all rolled into one. Any of his followers would screw him in a heartbeat.
Such charisma—the charisma of the city itself, a wildly oscillating bi-polar nature, crashing from pure possibility to utter collapse, a froth flying off, raw desire like that of truant teens sprawled in the park or a crank prophet or a striving artist or a girl who knows she only holds the world in her palm for a second—drives this book, along with that tantalizing uncertainty of chance, of a coin, flipped, but still spinning on its thin edge, the outcome undetermined. In this city, it’s not just that anything is possible, but that the inverse is also true. You can kill the whale, or you can be dragged to the deep, erased. You can yawp over the roof that you are a cosmos, or you can never get published, be swallowed in silence. And yet the city itself, here, in these pages, plays the role of the shell-game artist on the subway, the numbers hustler on the street, the preacher in the makeshift tabernacle, the potential paramour across the bar: take the chance, it says, you can’t win if you don’t play...
Official Jacob M. Appel Web Site
Official Elephant Rock Books Web Site