by Jenny Davidson

(Soft Skull Press, 300 pages, $14)

A Disjointed Search for the Will to Live
by Shaka N'Zinga
(Soft Skull Press, 240 pages, $13)

Off the Cuffs: Poetry by and about the Police
edited by Jackie Sheeler
(Soft Skull Press, 250 pages, $15)
Jenny Davidson will read at Reading Frenzy, 921 SW Oak St., 274-1449, at 7 pm Thursday, March 20.

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Who says a mohawked punk rocker can't found a serious publishing company? George W. Bush found out the hard way when headbanger-playwright-turned-publisher Sander Hicks released J.H. Hatfield's Bush biography Fortunate Son (pulled by its original publisher, St. Martin's Press), which levied serious allegations of nepotism, economic incompetence and even cocaine use against the then-presidential hopeful. Suddenly, sharp readers and cowering right-wingers across the nation became aware of Soft Skull Press, and the Brooklyn-based company instantly earned a reputation for outspokenness.

"We live in a country where freedom, justice and truth are becoming rare things," trumped Hicks, in a May 2001 interview with "The truth doesn't set you free: The truth gets you in trouble in this country." Hicks should know. When the 2001 second edition of Fortunate Son sold well, it prompted a harsh backlash from Bushites. A lengthy investigation (expertly captured in the 2001 documentary Horns and Halos) unearthed Hatfield's criminal record, which sent his family into hiding and finally drove the author to suicide.

Despite Hatfield's death and the threat of lawsuits, Soft Skull lives on and continues applying its fervently candid perspective to works of fiction, poetry and even personal journals. Fortunate Son is also in its third edition, and the press is going out on a limb in October by republishing Michael Bellesile's controversial Arming America.

Independent-mindedness is evidenced in Heredity, the just-released novel by Jenny Davidson. A tale of a neurotic 17th-century London mobster, Heredity winds a dark and nicely disturbing narrative. Medical abnormalities, antique surgical tools, and a truly abominable act of artificial insemination all play a role.

As Davidson's heroine sneaks into medical museums, casually contemplates suicide and bounces through torrid love affairs with a slew of affected English sybarites, the author's free association, first-person voice punctuates the already compelling narrative with a slick and dicey comic edge. "I totally get off on this morbid medical stuff," the heroine comments, when examining her lover's historical collection of crude medical instruments. Over dinner, she snidely declares her loathing for her beau's favorite mushrooms: "I found his look of disappointment extremely gratifying."

Toss in some sharp observations on the ills of genetic determinism, the evils of invasive medicine and the scientist's complete disregard for ye olde mortal coil, and Davidson concocts an engaging, challenging commentary on science and the human genetic temple.

In the realm of personal socio-political expression, Soft Skull has also freshly published A Disjointed Search for the Will to Live, a black prisoner's compiled poetry, memories and essays concerning racial oppression and the social incompatibility of white capitalist culture. A jarring stream-of-consciousness rumination composed by inmate Shaka N'Zinga, Disjointed Search deplores the unspoken evils of the author's "Amerikkka" (of course) and the horrible pathos of "dark faces confined in white places" that describes his daily existence both before prison and now during.

Though occasionally dense and often repetitive, N'Zinga's raging personal voice provides a thoughtful and determined assault on the dominant culture of "anti-social Internet use" in the "blue-jean-wearing atmosphere" created by people of pallor. The penal system stands as a mere extension of "Euro-Amerikkkan social injustice," and sellout black recording artists are in fact "killers of resistance culture for the capitalist motivation of the Amerikkkan dream."

Perhaps inspired wholly by his lust to regain his freedom, N'Zinga's ultimate moral demand is for us to embrace, love and
protect all forms of human life.

For fans of critical, no-holds-barred poetry, Soft Skull has also just published Off the Cuffs: Poetry by and about the Police, edited by cop's daughter Jackie Sheeler. A compilation of work by amateur poets from all sides of the law, this amalgam of sometimes tender, often brutal and always engrossing short poems explores the relationships between cops and civilians, victims and protectors, perpetrators and oppressors.

In "Weeping Walls," a cop empathizes with a depraved young suspect, murmuring, "I don't doubt/ that your sad story/ will make these interview room walls/ cry." In "The Arrest," a witness to a suspect's capture frets, "I suddenly feel safer/ But then I think/ what if he's innocent/ and then none/ of us are safe." In "Body in New Jersey Not Missing Woman's," a postal worker reads that a disembodied head does not match a headless body found in the same lake. Chilling. Enough said.

Thoughtful, critical, committed to expounding an openly manifold perspective toward all modern life, these and other releases by Soft Skull endorse a new, enlightened way of looking at society. Harsh politics and inspired fiction aside, in a nation that starves for real reality, Soft Skull Press has solidly grounded, daringly provocative food for the brain.