Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mostly Redneck, reviewed

Rusty Barnes makes it look easy. In this collection of eighteen short stories, Barnes is off and running practically from the very first sentence, launching the reader headlong into his characters' lives, conflicts, romances, and dilemmas. One of my favorites, "When Sylvester Dances," about a WWII veteran on his deathbed, begins like this:

Sylvester thinks it's 1942, and he wants to go see Glenn Miller at the Tropicana. Sylvester's heard the news Glenn has enlisted, and wants to catch him one more time. He watches from his hospital bed at the woman he ought to recognize as his granddaughter prepares for battle, applies lipstick, a broad stroke of purple, having already dressed herself in his old Navy blues to go out to a disco party.

This is a poignant story—sad, yet happy too, as the confused Sylvester's life plays out before his eyes (and the reader's). We get his history, we feel his confusion, we know he's a good man, and we also know how the story will end. But Barnes does it masterfully, and the end shows the author's heart coming through in the writing. And all of this in just four pages!

Barnes accomplishes a lot in a little space. The stories in Mostly Redneck range in length from four to thirteen pages. Other standouts include "O Saddam!" in which the dictator hides from US troops in plain sight, as a nut salesman in Boston, and the woman who falls in love with him; "Two of a Kind," in which two damaged people find each other; and "Rick's Song," which has the lead character, Jimmy, taking a job at a Chinese restaurant after a life-changing car accident. His boss Rick, a jerk on the surface, is actually an intriguing character that adds another level of depth to the story. The characters are so well drawn that they (Jimmy, Rick, and Rick's daughter Song) show up again in the story "Song & Jimmy: Four Scenes."

If you're looking for short fiction, put Mostly Redneck on your list.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Funny Man, reviewed

John Warner's debut novel begins with the title character (only ever known as the Funny Man) on trial for manslaughter. This is a celebrity trail, the trial of the year, maybe even the decade! Did this famous comedian who used to do that funny thing with his hand really shoot that guy dead in that alley? Why? And was he ever that funny, anyway?

Seamlessly moving back and forth between first person and third person narration, Warner does a good job of spoofing celebrity, and all its pitfalls, obsessiveness, loneliness, and general accepted eccentricities. We love 'em until we hate 'em. But how does the celebrity feel about it all? How does he rationalize his actions? Won't someone see his side of things? Is there a way out? Surely there is a way out.

People are disgusted by the funny man's actions—not just the manslaughter charge, but his slow public meltdown (sound familiar?). He knows he can't get a fair trial, since his lawyer's research has shown potential jurists see him as "untalented, successful, and a bad husband and father." Being successful is not a good thing (in the public's view) when coupled with "untalented." So his lawyer's initial defense is to put the funny man's life in context, elicit empathy from the jury (if not sympathy), put them in his shoes so they know why he did what he did. Tell them the whole story of his life, the how and why he got to this low point. Intimate that they would do the same thing under the same circumstances. And that's exactly what the author does—puts the reader into the funny man's shoes, cutting back and forth between the current trial and the past, showing how the comedian became so famous after struggling with his act in small clubs. His marriage, his fatherhood, his over-the-top lifestyle after fame and fortune were attained. Then the inevitable crash and burn. And manslaughter.

But the funny man may yet have an ace up his sleeve. Maybe there IS a way out, after all. Warner's writing is funny and sharp, and he keeps you turning the pages to see how it all turns out. The lead character is not always a sympathetic one, but you're along for the ride, through the good and bad, high points and low points until you reach the satisfying (for me) conclusion.

4 Stars

Thursday, October 06, 2011

R.I.P. Steve Jobs

Michelle and I are saddened to learn of the passing of Steve Jobs. Steve was among the greatest of American innovators - brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it.

By building one of the planet's most successful companies from his garage, he exemplified the spirit of American ingenuity. By making computers personal and putting the internet in our pockets, he made the information revolution not only accessible, but intuitive and fun. And by turning his talents to storytelling, he has brought joy to millions of children and grownups alike. Steve was fond of saying that he lived every day like it was his last. Because he did, he transformed our lives, redefined entire industries, and achieved one of the rarest feats in human history: he changed the way each of us sees the world.

The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve's success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Steve's wife Laurene, his family, and all those who loved him.

—President Obama