July 12th, 2010


Slapboxing with Jesus

A couple of years ago, I read Victor LaValle's novel The Ecstatic and was blown away by it. So it was with no small amount of eager anticipation that I read his story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, and I was not disappointed.

LaValle--whose second novel, Big Machine, just won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel this past weekend at Readercon--writes like a dream, and each story in Slapboxing with Jesus is a mini-masterpiece. His prose is stylish, smooth and spare, relying on a maestro's eye for detail, character and voice to fully immerse the reader in his well-drawn worlds, rather than lengthy word counts.

The collection is divided into two parts. The first, "the autobiography of New York today (in five parts)," is comprised of character-driven shorts that so deeply engross the reader in the world they populate--the outer boroughs, mostly--that you can practically smell the subway cars and apartment building stairwells. The heroes of these slice-of-life stories can hardly be called heroes, they're often selfish, ignorant, prejudiced, irresponsible, players. In other words, real. They're not aspirational, they're true to who they are, without apology, and are far more compelling for it. By the time you finish these first five stories, you'll feel like you've been hanging out with the wrong crowd, the kind of people your mom warned you to stay away from, but LaValle's writing is so strong, so confident, that you will have felt you absolutely belonged with them.

The second part is a series of interconnected stories, called "one boy's beginnings," that center around the tween to mid-teen years of one Anthony J-- in 1980s Queens. This could be the same Anthony James of The Ecstatic--his family is identical--but there are differences too. In The Ecstatic Anthony is a 350-pound paranoid schizophrenic, while here he's a pretty normal kid just trying to get by in a rough neighborhood--a friend loses an eye to bike thieves; Anthony gets beat up regularly by a school bully who wants him to ghostwrite love notes for him so he can get laid--while living with his single mother, a budding inventor, and Ugandan grandmother, who barely speaks English. Anthony's father, a white cop from Connecticut, abandoned the family long ago, but returns in the heartrending story "pops" to show that some father-son rifts just can't be healed, at least not that easily. These may be coming-of-age tales, but they're not safe or charming ones. In "class trip," fifteen-year-old Anthony is dragged by his friends to a hooker in a seedy part of town, but the experience is far from a 1980s jiggle-and-giggle movie. It's downright harrowing.

It's hard to know how much, if any, of these stories is autobiographical. LaValle certainly writes with the conviction of someone who lived through these moments. But of course, that's not what really matters. What matters is how LaValle makes the reader live through these moments, and he does so with style, certainty and aplomb.

I can't recommend his books enough.

The Shirley Jackson Award Winners

Things move so fast these days that this is probably old news already, but the 2009 Shirley Jackson Award winners were presented at Readercon this past weekend. Here are the results:

Winner: Big Machine, Victor LaValle (Speigel & Grau)

Last Days, Brian Evenson (Underland Press)
The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters (Riverhead)
The Owl Killers, Karen Maitland (Delacorte Press)
The Red Tree, Caitlin R. Kiernan (Roc)
White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi (Nan A. Talese)

Winner: Midnight Picnic, Nick Antosca (Word Riot Press)

The Language of Dying, Sarah Pinborough, (PS Publishing)
“Sea-Hearts,” Margo Lanagan (X6, coeur de lion)
Shrike, Quentin S. Crisp (PS Publishing)
Vardøger, Stephen Volk (Gray Friar Press)
The Witnesses are Gone, Joel Lane (PS Publishing)

Winner: “Morality,” Stephen King (Esquire)

“Catch Hell,” Laird Barron (Lovecraft Unbound, Dark Horse)
“Each Thing I Show You Is a Piece of My Death,” Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer (Clockwork Phoenix 2, Norilana Books)
“Lonegan’s Luck,” Stephen Graham Jones (New Genre 6)
The Night Cache, Andy Duncan (PS Publishing)

Winner: “The Pelican Bar,” Karen Joy Fowler (Eclipse 3, Night Shade)

“The Crevasse,” by Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud (Lovecraft Unbound, Dark Horse)
“Faces,” Aimee Bender (The Paris Review, Issue 191, Winter 2009)
“The Jacaranda Smile,” Gemma Files (Apparitions, Undertow Publications)
“Procedure in Plain Air,” Jonathan Lethem (The New Yorker, April 5, 2010)
“Strappado,” Laird Barron (Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, Solaris)

Winners (Two Winners): Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, Kevin Wilson (Harper Perennial) & Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, Robert Shearman (Big Finish Productions)

Everland and Other Stories, Paul Witcover (PS Publishing)
Fugue State, Brian Evenson (Coffee House Press)
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Penguin)
Zoo, Otsuichi (Haikasoru/VIZ Media)

Winner: Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Ellen Datlow (Solaris)

Apparitions, edited by Michael Kelly (Undertow Publications)
British Invasion, edited by Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon, and James A. Moore (Cemetery Dance)
Exotic Gothic 3: Strange Visitations, edited by Danel Olson (Ash Tree Press)
Lovecraft Unbound, edited by Ellen Datlow (Dark Horse)

Hearty congratulations to my friends Victor and Ellen, and to all the winners! I'm a huge fan of this relatively new award for "outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic," and I'm so happy to see it's still going strong. Here's looking forward to next year's crop!

Trivia Fail

Team Totally Tits only came in 8th place tonight at bar trivia. I blame myself for blanking on Ray Davies' name during the audio round ("Who Sang That Song?"), despite the fact that other well known names like Simon LeBon and Dee Snyder came to mind easily. Blerg. But we were down by two team members again. Hopefully when we return on Monday, August 16 Team Totally Tits will be back at full strength and will finally reclaim that damn trophy!