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May 30th, 2001 | Books
 

Three books reviewed

     
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Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains
by Susan Elderkin
(Grove Press, 310 pages, $13)

In Heaven, they say, the mechanics are German and the lovers French (in Hell, exactly the reverse is true). Add to this that in Heaven, the eccentrics are decidedly English.

Theobald Moon is not crazy--merely stubbornly set in his somewhat unusual habits. After his mother's death, he transplants himself from gray London to an isolated trailer in the remote Arizona desert. Here he settles into a routine that includes drinking his own urine every morning, followed by yoga in his elaborate cactus garden, which he tends with the same precise care as his own obsessively managed gluttony.

Weighing an ample "twenty-two stone and counting" (a shade over 300 pounds) and dressed for the heat in flowing white linen, he resembles the heavenly body his name suggests, and his gravity draws the novel's other characters into his orbit. When a pregnant Slovakian factory worker and her gypsy lover arrive on Theobald's horizon in a broken-down ice-cream truck, the story takes a darker and more complicated turn.

Unfortunately, author Susan Elderkin's ending doesn't quite fit the tone of the rest of her book, and the plot, too, feels forced, creating tension by withholding information from the reader with its constant jumps back and forth in time. But that isn't the point of this sort of book anyway. The pleasure of this novel is in Elderkin's vibrant, quirky language (saguaro cacti wait for the morning light to "slice their tops off like breakfast eggs") and its glimpse into the minds of its peculiar people. And in that respect, it is a heavenly summer read, indeed. Myrlin A. Hermes

 

The Lecturer's Tale
by James Hynes
(Picador, 388 pages, $25)

 

In his new novel, James Hynes continues his study of academic folly that began with Publish and Perish. The Lecturer's Tale traces the fate of Nelson Humboldt, failed temporary lecturer at a dysfunctional Midwestern University. Nelson loses his job, then his index finger in an accident. When the finger is re-attached, Nelson discovers that with the merest touch, he can bend any of his nasty colleagues to his will.

Though this sounds like a Jim Carrey plot device, it sets in motion a sequence of events as intelligent as it is farcical, providing Hynes a vehicle for a wicked, satiric look at contemporary academe. His characters alone give a clear idea of the tenor of this hilarious book: Dr. Penelope O occupies the Hugh Hefner Chair in Sexuality Studies, solely on the basis of her book, Reading with My Pussy; Coogan, an inebriated, self-identified "wild Celtic" Lothario and faux Irish poet who trails Bushmills; and Mort Weissman, disdained champion of the dead White Male Canon. Thug wannabe Anthony Pescecane is department chair, where he's found a niche in "the junkyard collage of post-modernism and its utter lack of moral and political content."

Hynes' sympathies are clear: "One generation of scholars fought a desperate rear-guard action on behalf of truth and beauty, and the next lacerated its own flesh on the thorny switches of French theory."

Though it eventually falls apart with great gusto, The Lecturer's Tale is truly the successor to the standard set by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim, with a little Francine Prose and Camille Paglia thrown in for added muscle. Steven Fidel

 


To Repel Ghosts
by Kevin Young
(Zoland Books, 350 pages, $26)

 

For most of my life, I've avoided poetry--often passing the common knee-jerk judgment that it's full of clichéd grand pronouncements about The Human Condition, and thus boring and stifling to read. It takes a remarkable work like To Repel Ghosts to show me exactly how rewarding and enjoyable poetry can be once I stop being such a reactionary prole and put in a little effort.

Poet Kevin Young, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, chose exceptionally well when he decided on brilliant and controversial painter Jean-Michel Basquiat as his work's subject. Basquiat's work is slate-full of text as well as violent, scribbling emotion. Young takes the text present in Basquiat's paintings and uses it as a counterpoint to his own words.

Think of To Repel Ghosts as a hip-hop album with samples of Basquiat. Short lines and stanzas, each with ironic layered meanings, chop out a staccato New Wave rhythm, name-checking Blondie, Grace Jones, Fab 5 Freddy, legendary NYC tag artists Daze and Crash, and fellow paintcan pirate, property-damager and street superstar Keith Haring. Of course Andy Warhol makes his appearance in the crowd, at first blithely racist, then mopping up the profits after Basquiat's fatal heroin overdose at age 27.

Whether Basquiat was as talented as the hype suggested is still under debate. Kevin Young's talent, on the other hand, certainly deserves praise. To Repel Ghosts is an audaciously successful work of art, succeeding both as a book of poetry and as a biography full of subtle pronouncements about an individual human condition, its set and setting, personality and product. Jemiah Jefferson

 
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