September 14th, 2008


Stop Dragging My Mama Around

It's rare I go out for a night on the town, but tonight was a perfect storm of opportunity.

First, my friend S. and I went to Mama's for dinner, a place I'd never been, though the name reminded me of my favorite breakfast joint in New Orleans. Turns out I wasn't that far off. Mama's, on 3rd Street between Avenues A and B, is a little slice of soul food heaven in the increasingly hipster hell of the East Village. Delicious food and huge portions with real bang for your buck. I got fried chicken, sweet potatoes and what was possibly the best broccoli I'd ever had, probably because it was cooked in butter and garlic. She got sauteed chicken breast, green beans and what I'm convinced is the best macaroni and cheese on the planet. After tasting it, I had severe food envy for the rest of the meal. Anyway, Mama's. Go. It's cheap and amazing.

Then we swung by Second on Second for our friend C.'s birthday party. Another place I'd never been to, though I've walked past it a thousand times, either on the way to Dempsey's or the KGB Bar. Karaoke's not my thing, though it's fun to watch. (Especially all the cute, drunk women there for bachelorette parties!) I did, however, perform the world's worst version of Tom Petty's half of the duet "Stop Dragging My Heart Around," with S. doing a much better job with Stevie Nicks' part. Luckily I didn't have to sing any more than that because the cute bachelorette parties were all too happy to hog the mics!

(My favorite performance of the evening? The drunk dude having the best time ever singing "Aqualung." God, yes!)

Tomorrow, maybe the Brooklyn Book Festival, maybe lying hungover on my couch and dreaming about cute bachelorette parties.

The Brooklyn Book Festival

So much fun! It was really heartening to see how many people in this movies-and-video-games world showed up in the sweltering heat to be a part of a festival devoted to books and reading! There were booths set up all over Borough Hall Plaza, representing tons of big, small and independent publishers -- though of course my favorites were the tables set up on the outskirts, so far away that they probably didn't pay for the space, where people sold their self-published conspiracy books.

I found the booth of the publishing company I used to work for back in the early '90s, The Overlook Press. I didn't know anyone in the booth, but I discovered not only that they recognize my name, but they're still getting mail addressed to me fifteen years later. Also, I was shocked to hear two of the people I worked with back then are still there!

I also stopped by the Author's Guild booth and picked up some literature. They have a health insurance plan for writers I'm interested in looking into.

But I spent most of my time hanging out with Gavin and Kelly at the Small Beer Press booth, where I ran into dbraum, susansugarspun, megmccarron and a whole host of other friends and acquaintances. (I also finally picked up a copy of Magic For Beginners because they were selling the hardcover for $10.) The best thing about hanging out at the Small Beer Press booth, aside from getting to spend time with Gavin and Kelly, which I don't get to do very often, is that it seemed to be a hub for all the cute, tattooed women attending the festival! Yay!

(One such woman overheard me saying to someone, completely out of context, "It's like the Superfriends, only they all have sex with each other," and loudly proclaimed that that was the book she wanted to buy. Maybe I'll make that my next novel!)

While the Brooklyn Book Festival is both newer and smaller than New York Is Book Country, I like it even more. It's big but with an intimate feel, and because I'm the King of Brooklyn, I knew one out of every ten people who walked past the booth! The Brooklyn Book Festival is now on my annual must-go list.

The Ecstatic

(Full disclosure: Victor LaValle is a friend of mine and a sometime member of the Who Wants Cake writing group. However, the novel reviewed here was written well before he joined the group, and well before I met him. As always, I try to maintain objectivity when reviewing books written by people I know, and sometimes even judge them more harshly than books by strangers.)

Before picking up Victor LaValle's The Ecstatic, or Homunculus, I hadn't read a good novel of just straight-up literary fiction in ages. I have to admit -- no disrespect to my genre-writing friends -- but it was quite a breath of fresh air. As an author, LaValle writes like a dream. He crafts his sentences like finely carved bone, applies just the right details, and makes his dialogue sing with humor, desperation, confusion, and frustration. LaValle understands style and voice in a way that I forget exists sometimes with all the plot-driven genre books I read. His characters aren't just finely drawn -- they're real. Highly stylized in some ways, but so real to me, as the reader, that I was a little sad to say goodbye to them when I finished the novel.

Our narrator is Anthony James, a 350-pound unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic. He's also the most normal person in his family. His mother has frequent bouts of amnesia, mixed with uncontrollable promiscuity. His thirteen-year-old sister, Nabisase, travels the teen beauty pageant circuit. His grandmother hails from "the old country" -- Uganda -- and has a limited grasp of English but knows how to twist the insult knife. Anthony's family drives to Ithaca to pick him up from Cornell, where he has taken to wandering around naked and wearing his hair in a wild cauliflower afro, and bring him back to their depressed neighborhood in Queens.

This is a very rich character piece, and like a lot of character pieces it has no single through-line of plot. Instead it follows several intersecting character arcs. Anthony struggles through getting his family and neighbors not to be scared of him, hooks up with a revolutionary college student with control issues named Lorraine, goes with Nabisase to West Virginia to enter her in the Miss Innocence beauty pageant for girls who say no -- which he semi-accidentally sabotages by letting in a group of radicals led by Uncle Arms, who wants to turn it into a pageant rewarding hardship instead of beauty -- falls in with the neighborhood devil, Ishkabibble, a loan shark everyone owes money to and who agrees to fund Anthony's idea of making a horror movie, which instead becomes a self-publishing scam for an encyclopedia of horror movies that may or may not exist. (Speaking of, I half expected Ishkabibble not to exist too, for LaValle to go the Fight Club route, but he doesn't let anything be that easy.) Along the way we also meet Ledric Mayo, who eats spoiled fish in the hopes of contracting tapeworm in order to lose weight, a team of illegal immigrant cleaners getting high off asbestos fumes, a cow with a fist-sized hole in its side, and a pack of neighborhood dogs that go wild and take over Anthony's street. Did I mention it's kind of a comedy? It's also really sad. Often at the same time.

Anthony, being sick, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. There are a small handful of scenes whose veracity are suspect, such as witnessing a liaison between Nabisase and Ledric Mayo at a movie theater -- when Anthony yells his sister's name, Ledric vanishes into thin air. The aforementioned horror movies aren't recognized by a single person who looks at the book -- including one called "Homunculus," also the subtitle of LaValle's novel, about invulnerable monster children who take over for their mortal, fallible, destructible parents. Like Anthony to his insane mother and absent father.

There are so many passages I'd love to quote for you here, but I'll resist the urge. Instead, I highly recommend you to read the novel itself. It's an amazing, powerful, often hilarious experience. (Plus, LaValle is a spec-fic nerd and peppers the story with references to Lovecraft and Wellman.) If The Ecstatic is any indication, I can't wait to pick up LaValle's first book, the collection Slapboxing with Jesus. You can also find something of his in Gary Phillips and Christopher Chambers' new superheroes of color anthology The Darker Mask.

Anthony James reminds me a lot of Ignatius J. Reilly, and indeed The Ecstatic as a whole reminds me of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. I can think of no higher praise.