[Note: The colophon states 500 copies printed, but due to paper shortages only 310 were in fact printed. If you want one, best to act soon.Details: https://at.virginia.edu/wunderkammer]
— Paul Witcover. Lincolnstein. A Novel. [Hornsea:] PS, . 155 pp. Pictorial boards, dust jacket after Carl Pugh.
Paul Witcover’s Lincolnstein is a concise and nimble critical fiction, an original and moving work expressed from the collision of historical incident and literary texts. It is a novel of ideas in motion, from the headlong rush of the kidnapping of a Confederate military surgeon by two spies from Pinkerton’s Union Intelligence Service to the shocking purpose behind their deed. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus is invoked upon the title page, but within the story the allusions emerge organically. President Lincoln has been assassinated and Stanton intends to put to use the theories of the brother of the doctor, one Victor —. “What brother? I have no brother.” is the response of the Confederate doctor who squeaks like a “Dutchman”, and yet he recognizes the apparatus assembled in the train-car laboratory. After warning, “Your President is dead […] If you loved him you would leave him that way”, the surgeon agrees, under duress, to perform the task. This conceit is bold enough, and then with the turn of a page the reader makes one more heart-wrenching discovery, and learns the other literary text with which the novel converses. Go read the book and experience it.
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The resonances of Frankenstein are a stratum of bedrock, the earlier novel visible in the revulsion at the success of the process, in the flight of the monster, in the prodigious strength of the revived Lincoln and the polished oratory (Lincoln’s speeches rather than Milton’s Paradise Lost), and Mary Shelley’s novel propels the arc of the novel towards its conclusion. And yet, equally organically, the biggest and boldest of Witcover’s moves is to have Captain Finn lift the sheet from the face of another corpse in the laboratory, and in that act reveal who he is, and what his loss is. Finn’s initial disbelief yields to cold rage and he announces, “There has been a slight change of plans, Doc.”
That had been a life fit for kings. Catfish for supper, pipe always full, easy conversation all day as the shore slipped by in endless green unfurling, the river adding its voice to their own. He would have stayed there forever if he could.
A novel, like life, is motion and change, not stasis. The electricity stored in the laboratory revives the body of the president, and everything changes. Instead of the brain of the dead white bumpkin intended to render the president compliant, Lincoln’s skull now contains the brain of Jim Watson, who had been fatally wounded while helping Capt. Huckleberry Finn kidnap the doctor. Lincoln bursts from the train, and Finn pursues him, with orders from Pinkerton but with his own sense of mission. If Frankenstein impels the novel into action, the energy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shapes the subsequent course of events as Jim travels stealthily through the ruined landscape of war in search of his enslaved wife and children. Witcover writes short monologues, crisp vignettes of encounters with the errant Lincoln and aid him on his way. These many supporting voices are one of the pleasures of the book.
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Did you really think the Matter of America leads to a happy ending? If the legend of King Arthur is the Matter of Britain, fraud and race are the Matter of America. The other day, I came across a pamphlet on racial equality and equal suffrage from 1865, in which the pretense of America as a “white man’s country” is dismissed by the black writers of the pamphlet: “Every school-boy knows that within twelve years of the foundation of the first settlement at Jamestown, our fathers as well as yours were toiling in the plantations on James River.”
Since Pinkerton has told Finn of the Mississippi plantation where Jim’s kin are being held, Finn dogs the reanimated Lincoln’s footsteps and they soon find each other. It is not an easy reunion, and Witcover deftly brings home blunt truths, in ways Clemens could only hint at in Huckleberry Finn and in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy Those Extraordinary Twins (1894). Jim as Lincoln is articulate about the relations between black and white in America:
There ain’t nothing you white folks like to believe in more than the idea of your own goodness. You will ignore all evidence to the contrary, just to make yourselves feel better about all the evil that you have done or allowed to be done in your name. Sure, white folks pity a blind man. But that ain’t nothing compared to the pity you feel for the real victims of this misbegotten world: your own damn selves. It’s a story you don’t never get tired of telling, nor of hearing.
This is very direct, perhaps I have not chosen the best passage, for the discussions of Huck’s black rage and Jim’s quest are natural and seamless and the infodump is nowhere to be seen.
Jim says of his Lincoln memories, “I can feel the tug of all that was dear to him. And hateful too. Everything that touched him, for good or ill. It’s like I’m a big old spider sitting at the center of a web he spun in life.” Huck remarks on the revived president’s “steady pumping heart”, but the voice and heart of the novel are Jim Watson coming to terms with the world and the body he now inhabits.
Witcover has found the appropriate mode to convey a common usage in the world of the novel, in simply writing n——, as profanity was once elided in Victorian fiction: every one knows the word, but we don’t, can’t use it the way it was used in 1865 (or in St. Petersburg, Missouri, in 1845, or in the novel published in 1885). That is the only concession made to current discourse, and there is no evasion of the brutality of the slave system or its intertwining with American life in North or South.
In Huck and Jim’s march to the banks of the Mississippi, Witcover’s novel converses or collides with aspects of Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration (the brain swap), the recent novel by George Saunders, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, and Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. These are not merely allusions but are integrations and transformations of that material which advance the plot and present a critical response to the precursor texts. And the key text remains Huckleberry Finn. Disguised as a blind veteran and his loyal bondsman, Huck and Jim reach Terra, the vast, prosperous De Spain plantation, which remains untouched by war and emancipation. The gross, bloated Major de Spain has made sure of his accommodations with those in power. All these elements of deceit and cozying up to power and selfishness are discernable in Clemens’ novel. The deceptions are monstrous, far more appalling than the idea of reviving the corpse of Abraham Lincoln, and the rotten structure cannot withstand the monster’s rage. And then, in a beautiful concluding passage which links both Frankenstein and Huckleberry Finn, Jim leaves the burning plantation, carrying the corpse of the person inseparable from him — just as the monster carried Victor’s corpse out into the endless Arctic wastes, so Jim lowers Huck’s lifeless body onto a timber flatboat and joins the flowing river: “The raft receded, his upright figure silhouetted in the gleam of reflected flames. Then the current took him, and he was lost in darkness.”
— Avram Davidson. Beer! Beer! Beer! [Novato, California : Or All the Seas with Oysters Publishing, 2021]. [xiv], 218 pp. Pictorial wrappers with a cover drawing by Avi Katz. https://avramdavidson.com/avram-davidson-beer-beer-beer/
Beer! Beer! Beer! is the first printed book by Avram Davidson to be issued by Seth Davis and Or All the Seas with Oysters Publishing: last year he began commissioning audio versions of Davidson’s works and producing the monthly series of interview podcasts, The Avram Davidson Universe.
Beer! is a tale of the intrusion of bootlegging into the Hudson river town of Yokums, New Jersey, a looking glass idealization of Yonkers, where Avram was born and where, incidentally, gangster and prince of bootleggers Dutch Schultz was based. If you want a brisk account of the facts, you may read “Beer Like Water” in Crimes and Chaos (1962). Beer! gives a broad cross section of daily life in the riverside town during the late phase of Prohibition, with some recognizable Davidsonian types: newspaperman Bill Bomberg has something of the questing energy of Bob Rosen in “The Sources of the Nile”, and Captain Clack of the packet boat Sadie Howell is stamped from several Avramish patterns. Beer! includes a wealth of digression — on Dutch settlements in the Hudson, newspaper publishing, and a catalogue of urban life in Depression America through the eyes of a young boy — and numerous interesting minor characters (always one of the charms of Davidson’s work). The corruption generated by the beer trade pervades the town, and the narrative ambles from City Hall to the office of the Fourth Ward Glagolitic-Slovatchko-Ukrainian Improvement Association, from the sewers to the packet boat wharf on the Hudson waterfront, and from to the National Cereal Company to the mansions along Upper Bluffs Avenue. There are some fine comic moments and the book progresses to a choreographed and convulsive ending.
It is, however, in looking at the principal clues to the dating of the manuscript that the real significance of this book emerges. Among the town’s principal ethnic minorities are the “Slovatchkos, whose homeland, sundered by the break-up of the Scythian-Pannonian-Transbalkanian Empire, was now divided between two other — and larger — nations” (32). This allusion to the setting of The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy (1975) clearly situates the composition of the manuscript in the late 1970s and points to one of the great themes of Davidson’s work, immigrant life in America (and what Michael Swanwick has identified as “the loss of ethnicity”).
The source of this previously unpublished novel is a typescript of some 240 pages, known variously as Beer . . . That Makes You Want to Cheer or The Day Beer Flowed like Water (one copy of this typescript is preserved in the Avram Davidson Collection at Texas A&M University). Beer! Beer! Beer! is Davidson’s preferred title and comes from his correspondence. The text is manifestly an early or even first draft manuscript, presented here with a very light edit and not altering the invented phonetics with which Davidson sought to capture the hard, distinctive Yonkers accent of his childhood. As with the selective use of profanity to create a heightened reality rather than the bludgeoning repetition of real life, it is a question of balance. Davidson would later write in “El Vilvoy de las Islas”, “In the opinion of some people (in fact, lots), a little of such style goes a long way.” And at the same time he ensured that “some more of the original from time to time seeps through.” This is a print on demand book (your correspondent saw an uncorrected proof printed in Columbia, South Carolina, on 2 November 2021).
Beer! stands between Davidson’s miniature, “The Last Wizard” (published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Mystery Magazine for December 1972) and his long masterpiece “The Slovo Stove” (1985), and one can trace turns of phrase from Beer! to later works. A passage in Beer! where Bill Bomberg reminiscences about his love life (177) is a trial run for a key incident when Jack Limekiller discovers evidence of Bathsheba’s inconstancy in “There beneath the Silky-Trees and Whelmed in Deeper Gulphs Than Me” (published in 1980). By that time Davidson must have understood that Beer! was going nowhere, and so he reused a good phrase to greater effect. Yokums has something of the feel the town of Parlour’s Ferry in “The Slovo Stove”, a story with none of the rosy nostalgia or Depression-era clichés of Beer! The effect is not unlike reading one of the “mainstream” novels Phil Dick wrote in the 1950s in the vain hope of leaving the science fiction treadmill of the paperback original market (think Confessions of a Crap Artist and its parallels to Time out of Joint, for example). Davidson had attempted to do this himself in the 1960s, with Dragons in the Trees, a non-fiction account of his travels in British Honduras, material he would later transmute into the Limekiller stories. Aspects of life in Yonkers rose up again while Davidson composed his zigzag plotted Adventures in Autobiography in the 1990s. In addition to the many pleasures of the story, Davidson’s Beer! is notable as an intermediate station on the road to “The Slovo Stove”. [HWW]
First published in The Nutmeg Point District Mail, vol. XX no. 1, for 12 December 2021.
— Charif Majdalani. Dernière oasis. Roman. Actes Sud / L’Orient des livres, .
Dernière oasis is an excellent novel of menace, in which a cosmopolitan art expert describes his descent into uncertain territory (somewhere northeast of Mosul, in the summer of 2014):
Le plaisir de la découverte des objets clandestins, mon déplacement jusqu’aux lieux où on me les dévoile et, après ça, l’aventure que représente leur rocambolesque transport, chaque fois suffisent à mon bonheur.
The setting is exotic, the prose is beautiful and musical, the pacing is deft, and things are just falling apart.
— — —
[A few days later]
Tout ce désert, c’est la faute des hommes qui ont gouverné la région, dit-il. Des irresponsables et des bandits.
And now, having experienced the full arc of the narrative arc of this very present and cosmopolitan novel (which encompasses old Lebanon, the fission of Iraq, the international art market, and the onset of the coronavirus), I remark upon how beautifully and precisely and evocatively Majdalani’s prose turns upon memory and place. There are many sly doublings of image and mood, intense conversations in unusual settings in this contemplative thriller. In his own head and with others, the narrator engages in a recurring discussion of history and its agents. Having since listened to a conversation between Gil Roth and Charif Majdalani when his earlier novel, Caravansérail (2007), appeared in English translation as Moving the Palace (New Vessel, 2017), it is clear that reflection upon historical decline is an important aspect of his work.
À chaque nouvelle catastrophique parvenant d’Irak ou de Syrie durant les années qui suivirent, ou de n’import quel coin de la planète en rapport avec les événements de cette région, j’ai resongé à l’affair du convoi du du général Ghadban et de son changement d’itinéraire, à cet embranchement, et à cette autre voie qui, si le convoi l’avait prise, aurait peut-être conduit non pas seulement Ghadban mais le monde entier ailleurs que là où ils ont été.
The reader shares the narrator’s experience of teetering at the edge of an abyss of time and incident. I am thinking about why, suddenly, in reading the opening passages of this novel, it was the mood of Ernst Jünger’s Auf den Marmor-Klippen (1939) which came up in memory (I am not going to re-read that one just now). Majdalani intimates, subtly and not with a sledge hammer, what we know in our hearts: that to be anywhere in the world — not only during the collapse of order in north Iraq in late summer 2014 — is to sense the increasing entropy of a closed system. And how beautifully the story is told.
I look forward to reading other books by Majdalani.
— Josh Rountree. Fantastic Americana. Stories. Fairwood Press, .
Fantastic Americana gathers 21 stories, with “Her Soul, A Dark Forest” and “In the Teeth” original to this volume, the others published in magazines and anthologies between 2006 and 2021. The twin lines of this wide-ranging collection are Rountree’s riffs on contemporary popular music and his dark, deep-rooted tales of Texas fantastika. There is also, as in Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman’s Back in the USSA (1997), the pleasure of messing with history. These aims do not necessarily exclude each other.
“February Moon” is the concise narrative of an immigrant mother who knows well that the dangers of the old world have come with her family across the ocean to backwoods Texas. She knows how to deal with the werewolves and the ineligible bachelors. “In the Thicket, with Wolves” starts with a single mother in a contemporary setting and moves into primal folkloric territory. “Rewind” and “Rattlesnake Song” suggest the world is larger than we think while playing with the dead media tropes of video store and movie theater. In “Her Soul, A Dark Forest” a young boy recounts the flight of his mother from a stifling situation into the mesquite, for him as for us there are no answers, we can only experience another order of reality at odds with our own.
Among the unspoken concerns of this collection is what an earlier age would have call the domestic manners of the American family. Rountree will sometimes, as in “February Moon”, use a simple declarative sentence to suggest a monstrous situation that has nothing to do with shape-changers. The women know what’s what, the best of the guys try to put it together. And the worst of the men deserve what unfolds.
Your correspondent reads ventures into critical fiction sympathetically and yet with clear eyes. In “Chasing America”, where Paul Bunyan collides with Wild Bill Hickok, Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Kerouac, and the Kennedy assassination, the nature of American myth and myth-making is deftly illuminated. On the other hand, the juxtaposition of the Merry Pranksters and far future space war in “Intrepid Travelers” doesn’t work thematically or structurally for this reader, and is less fruitful. A few of the stories didn’t to compel this reader, but then there is “Escaping Salvation” where unexpected supernatural phenomena define a post-collapse world and a new ecological order seems to hold sway.
The best stories are without question tales in which all these topics play with and against each other to make things happen. “Best Energies” plays with country music, Albert Einstein, and “old splinter teeth” — George Washington rendered immortal by control of the fountain of youth — and adds an independent Republic of Texas at odds with Washington, to create a fissile situation. “Fury Road” turns the songs of The Clash into a revolutionary toolbox, analogous to some of the transformations of popular culture in Michael Swanwick’s “The Feats of Saint Janis” or Jack Womack’s Elvissey. And “The Guadalupe Witch” is really something, a haunting river tale, the telling of which dismisses any epistemological ambiguities.
Fantastic Americana justifies its bold title. It’s worth looking for.