Friday, September 30, 2011

Captain Harding’s Six-Day War by Elliott Mackle

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Lethe Press
Pages: 248

In 1967, Captain Harding is working his way up the promotion ladder within the U.S. Air Force. He’s a go-getter with a head on his shoulders and a talent for fixing problems. He is also gay.

The story begins with Captain Harding arriving at his new assignment, the post of executive officer for Wheelus Air Force Base in Libya. It’s a bit of a disappointment for Harding, who knows that he needs a tour in Viet Nam on his record before his next promotion will be approved. His mood takes a nosedive when he realizes his real assignment is baby-sitting the base wing commander, a loose-cannon named Colonel Adger. Harding is stuck taking care of administrative details while Adger constantly flies off to play golf with the bigwigs.

Captain Harding is on base for less than a week before he is bedding and enlisted medic and a rather studly major. Harding makes it clear that he likes to play the field, and is not the type of man to fall in love and be monogamous. And play the field he does, including going to a private party that turns into an all male orgy where he is the center of everyone’s attentions.

During his sexual adventures, he also strikes up a friendship with the American ambassador’s sixteen-year-old son. The two form an instant crush on each other, and Harding must wrestle with the ethical aspects of forming a relationship with a minor. The more his strong moral sense fights the idea, the deeper he falls for this lovely, precocious kid.

While dealing with a series of misadventures—including the murder of a gay serviceman, a flight-surgeon’s drug abuse, the death of his former lover in Viet Nam, and trying to protect a woman accused of being a lesbian because she refused to have sex with her superior officers—Harding must constantly protect himself from being exposed as a gay man. Three officers suspect him, and they attempt to out him at every turn.

In the run-up to Israel’s Six-Day War, a mob attacks the embassy in Tripoli, which takes Harding’s boss, Colonel Adger, over the edge and into madness. He steals a fighter jet and sets out to attack an Arab warship in order to force America into the war. To bring the colonel back safely and keep America out of the war, Harding must out himself while talking the colonel back to base. But can he do that? Can he throw his career away in order to save a man he loathes?

This is a rather compelling book that I have mixed feelings about. It is extremely well written, perfectly structured, and moves at a fast, exciting pace. Mackle captures a brusque voice that suits this military setting perfectly. There is conflict at every turn, and also tender moments.

Yet, I more than once felt I was being set up for something that the story failed to deliver. For instance: the opening pages describe the brutal murder of a young airman who was suspected of being gay. This seemed the perfect hook for a murder mystery, right? But then the story moves on and nothing else is said about the murder until the last twenty pages. I found it rather strange that a book that starts in such a way, simply drops that topic. There is no mention of an investigation, the resolution, nothing.

Then Harding’s last commanding officer, which Harding had some sort of sexual three-way relationship with, sends Harding a note threatening to expose the Captain. However, after the note, it also was dropped and nothing was done to deliver on the promise.

Lastly, the setting itself promised something grand, the Middle East leading up to the Six-Day War. I expected a rather smart, political thriller. Yet, the story focused on Harding’s sexual exploits and his efforts to keep them secret, along with his realization of deeper feelings for that special someone. I felt a bit disappointed that there were only a dozen or so pages that really delved into the war tensions.

Still, this is a compelling read. It is a very sexy story of finding love in the most unusual of places, and also a tale of battling bigotry to save yourself. The author does a brilliant job of defining the protagonists/antagonists. This is definitely a them-verses-us type story, and no matter how little or how much the reader likes Harding’s character, s/he cannot help but pull for him all the way to the last page.

The ending is a bit open ended, and very satisfying. Military buffs will especially appreciate this story, but it is a book that can be appreciated by all readers. It is a story that I can highly recommend.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Kaleidoscope by Anel Viz

Publisher: Silver Publishing:
ISBN: 9781920501037
Reviewer: Victor J. Banis
4.75 stars out of 5.

Blurb: In these seven stories, the author explores people's shifting views of each other, of the images they project, and of themselves. Individuals fragment, the pieces fall into ever-changing patterns like bright confetti in the base of a kaleidoscope, and our ideas about sexuality color what we see.

My review:
This is an utterly unique – I can say without hesitation “fascinating”-- collection of stories and anecdotes, like nothing I’ve ever encountered before. It is certainly beautifully written and on the surface, at least, written with a great deal of insight into human behavior – but with a disclaimer in the author’s preface, in which he states that “We never truly know another person; we do not truly understand ourselves.” What the author presents here, then, is a never entirely reliable and often changing look at various situations in which various people find themselves, but, he warns us, “None of them are omniscient.” So, this collection is not about some vague “truth,” but rather about perceptions, and these changing perceptions are the kaleidoscope of his title. And the insights may not be insights at all, but erroneous perceptions.

It is both an intriguing conceit and at the same time somewhat distancing. When George, in Polygon, says, “No man would ever talk about the intimate details of his marriage bed with his buddies” which is patently untrue, since men do this all the time, is the author wrong? Or George? Or, maybe just this perception? Nothing, here, is necessarily what it seems – or, if I understand correctly, necessarily not what it seems either.

Well, there are worse sins for an author than ambiguity – Hamlet, anyone? Certainly the stories are thought provoking. And libido provoking as well. There is nothing, really, in the way of raw sexuality and yet sex permeates everything, either in its presence, or in its absence – although we’re not always quite sure if it is present—or absent. Still, these tales are, I should say, as much about sex in its various permutations, as they are about anything. But, sex in many different lights.

It’s worth mentioning that the author covers a lot of ground age-wise, too—teens and high school grads and seniors, and pretty much everything in between. Same with gender and (at least perceived) sexual orientation. It seems, when one has finished, that there must be more than the seven stories the volume includes, but no, only seven, just with much to say.

Proteus is about a gay college professor in his late sixties, and a handsome young student who, we realize gradually, likes older men and is trying very hard to come on to him—but the prof insistently rebuffs the young man’s advances—he doesn’t like younger men and he’s not interested. He says. But, what to make of this passage, which hardly exemplifies disinterest: With Bramson sitting almost directly in front of him, Edmund had a ringside view of the boy and his assets. His legs were a definite asset, muscular and shapely, his thighs big enough so the gym shorts dug into them when he bent his knees. They were looser around his hips, so his endowment did not fill them, but Edmund guessed it was fairly generous. The tank top hugged his upper body, outlining his pecs and nipples, and sometimes it rode up so you could see his navel. The muscles in his arms were very hard, and the hair in his armpits and what little he had on his arms and legs as blond as the hair on his head.
I found this story perhaps the most erotically charged of the collection.

In Roomies (this one more a collection of anecdotes than a story), two of the three young men who share a condo, Marty the swish and Denny the butch, go camping together:
Both felt that they shouldn't have sex; both wanted to. Marty was mostly concerned that if they did it would put a strain on their easy relationship back at the condo, not that there was much chance of them becoming lovers and Art ending up left out. Denny was too promiscuous for that. Anyway, Art had a boyfriend. Denny, on the other hand, was afraid that it would leave him feeling unsatisfied since he would want to flip-flop and Marty, a committed bottom, wouldn't.

Which seems straightforward enough—except that the author has already told us that this narrator, like all the others in the book, isn’t omniscient—this is just his take on things. Which is to say, maybe the boys did, and maybe they didn’t. How would he know? Just as in the real world, what happens and what someone tells you happened may not be the same thing.

In Photographic Memories, Tanner was seen leaving a bar with the man who supposedly murdered him. With his photographic memory, Kyle, who saw them leave together, would seem to be the perfect witness—except he isn’t sure if he saw the accused, or someone he knew from his own past. Those perceptions again.

Facing the Music offers us Joe and Max, who more or less stumble into a sexual relationship which quickly gets them in trouble with their homophobic church, and they are sent to a reindoctrination camp intended to make heterosexuals of them. It maybe works. Or maybe it doesn’t.

In Kevvy, we get, Rashomon style, three different versions of the same story about a trio of teens, mostly leading up to gay Kevin giving straight Arthur a blow job, seemingly at Arthur’s insistence. As the author puts it in his preface, “None of the versions of "Kevvy" is entirely accurate however, (Kevin's may have been, but we hear it from Cole, who editorializes heavily)”
Robbie, in Since the Reunion, is perceived by some as straight, by others as bi – and his own perception of himself varies—but, as the author points out, he may be as reluctant to reveal his true sexuality to the reader as he is to the two friends in the story.

So, what on earth is one to make of this? Comic Brother Dave Gardner was wont to say, “don’t tell me your doubts, I have enough doubts of my own, tell me something you believe.” There isn’t much here to believe, it seems. What is there to grab hold of, to anchor one to these people, their adventures? Maybe nothing. Which of course is entirely true to life.

The author is right in his premise that the ambiguity in these pieces reflects real life – it is true, we never really know ourselves, let alone one another. But the best writing—the best in any art—doesn’t merely mimic life, but illuminates it. Art is a mirror that we hold up to ourselves, in the hope that we will see ourselves in a different light—as when walking down a street, we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a store window, and both recognize ourselves, and see ourselves differently. Good writing, the best writing, functions as that store window.

Do I see myself in these windows? I see a lot of questions (is that really me?) mostly without answers, or where there seem to be answers, they quickly morph into another question.
Or maybe, the author is suggesting, the question is the answer?

Still, I found this collection intriguing and intelligent, and savored it mightily. Like everything else I’ve read from this author, it’s refreshingly different and I came away from it after two readings (and I suspect there will be many more) with much food for thought and with my sense of how things are somewhat roiled—which may have been exactly what the author intended. This is not—nor do I suppose it was intended to be—for everyone, but for the reader of a certain discernment, it affords considerable pleasure, if mostly of a reflective kind.

One thing cannot be disputed, however: the author’s prose is elegant beyond reproach, as clear and dry—and as bracing—as a good martini – which, perhaps, is the apt metaphor with which to end this review—I found myself shaken, not stirred.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Third Buddha by Jameson Currier

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Chelsea Station Editions
Pages: 322

Ted Bridges, a twenty-something law student, drops out of school and moves to New York to look for his brother, Phillip (“Pup”) who disappeared the day the World Trade Center towers fell. Ted moves into Pup’s Chelsea apartment and tries to piece together his dead brother’s life. Both brothers are gay, but very different. Pup was out and loved to socialize, loved being gay. Ted is closeted and has had little to no sexual experience with other men. Through the process of living in his brother’s shadow, what starts as a search for his brother turns into a search for his own sexual identity. Learning about his sibling and what it means to be gay through Pup’s friends and ex-lovers, Ted, over a period of several months, becomes his own man living a gay lifestyle.

Half a world away in a different decade, two international journalists, Ari and Jim, travel in Afghanistan. They are separated after their vehicle explodes from a roadside bomb. Ari awakes with no memory. He is taken in by hill-tribe Muslims and, for a time, becomes one of them. Jim recovers in an army hospital, and later pulls strings in order to travel back into dangerous Taliban controlled Afghanistan to find his lover, Ari.

These are two very dissimilar stories, both about searching for a loved one, but still very different in character and nature. Ted’s story is told in first person, Ari and Jim’s story is told in third person. These tales are very loosely linked by a few minor characters who live in New York, friends of Pup.

Many stories I’ve read that swing between two or more different plots has one story that intrigues me, and the other doesn’t. The Third Buddha was no exception to this rule. I found Ted’s search to be poignant and fascinating. I felt his pain and confusion, and was pulling for him all the way through his wonderfully convincing character arc.

Jim and Ari’s story I found flat, overly predictable, and often tedious. Currier did a marvelous job of creating a realistic environment of war-torn Afghanistan, and the writing was certainly accomplished, but the author keeps the reader from getting too close to his characters in this part of the story. Currier constantly switches between Jim’s adventures, to Ari’s hardships, to flashbacks of their relationship before being separated (way too many flashbacks for my tastes). This constant fractured storytelling became frustrating. It felt to me like I was following the story from an altitude of ten-thousand feet when I wanted to be right there on the ground. It simply didn’t have the same intensity as Ted’s search for his brother. And the fact that it took no guesswork to figure out exactly what would happen didn’t help.

The title, “The third Buddha” refers to an archeological site in Afghanistan where scientists search for a giant statue of the Buddha. It is near this site where tribe’s people take in Ari. This search for the statue is used as a symbol of the ongoing pursuit for something bigger than ourselves. And, of course, that is what both these stories are about.

Jameson Currier is a talented writer who has created an important and thought-provoking book. These are credible characters who experience gut-twisting emotional hardships and victories. It is a book I can highly recommend, even if it doesn’t find a place on my “favorite’s” shelf.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Woke up in a Strange Place by Eric Arvin

Reviewer: Victor J. Banis
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
ISBN 978-1-61581-795-5

Joe wakes up in a barley field with no clothes, no memory, and no idea how he got there. Before he knows it he’s off on the last great journey of his life. With his soul guide, Baker, and a charge to have courage from a mysterious, alluring and somehow familiar Stranger, Joe sets off through a fantastical changing landscape to confront his past.

The quest is not without challenges. Joe’s past is not always an easy thing to relive, but if he wants to find peace—and reunite with the Stranger he is so strongly drawn to—he must continue on until the end, no matter how tempted he is to stop along the way.

I confess that I found myself of two minds while reading this book, part of me quite enchanted and part of me – the writing coach part – perturbed by some bad writing habits, particularly in the first 20 or 30 pages. Indeed, I nearly stopped reading and tossed the book into my “No, thanks” pile.

Let me quickly say I’m glad I did not, because once we got past a slow start, the book turned out to be a magical and often highly original interpretation of the mythical journey for the truth, the hero quest.

So let me start by waxing eloquent on what is good—make that very good-- about the book. First, as I said already, it’s a fresh and original take on an oft used theme (though not so often in gay or m/m fiction). Joe, the protagonist, wakes up in what he thereafter insists on thinking of as Heaven, although his spirit guide, Baker, keeps insisting that this isn’t that, at least not in the sense that he perceives it.

And like all seekers after truth, Joe sets out on a journey, without really understanding where it is he’s headed. At the onset, Joe’s memory seems mostly to have vanished, but as he journeys, memories come back to him, he meets people from his past, some of them changed, some of them not, and he sees scenes from his life in a different light.

I can’t get into all of Joe’s adventures here, and I wouldn’t want to anyway. Following them for yourself, taking your own journey, is way more fun, and more instructive, too, but the author displays a vivid imagination, sometimes humorous, sometimes profound, and nearly always charming. It would be very difficult, for example, not to be enchanted by The City of Thought, where people fish in the clouds with crystal poles for dreams and ideas. I’d book a vacation there any day. What gay male wouldn’t enjoy a stopover with “the brethren,” a sort of Heavenly fraternity house peopled with all the drop-dead gorgeous men of one’s dreams, all super endowed, all there for nothing more than the joys of endless sex? Hey, it may not be what they sing about in Sunday school, but it sound pretty heavenly to me. You can have the golden slippers.

Not everything is brightness and light, of course, in this journey any more than in your own life. There are some dark patches, some genuinely scary interludes, and some painful lessons to be learned.

There is that slow start, however, and the problems I mentioned earlier, and while I can’t exactly do a blow by blow (and what would be the point, since the book is already published?) it would be unfair to the writer to mention them and not provide a few examples of what I mean. Anyway, they are the sort of thing that a diligent writer can and should correct, which is to say it will benefit him in the longer run.

First, though, it will help if I explain that good fiction, short or long, is like a dream shared by the author and the reader. The author wants the reader to forget that he’s reading a book, and sink into the dream, experiencing it for himself. So, the cardinal sin for the author is anything that jars the reader out of the dream, reminding him this isn’t real, it’s only a book.

That is why, however clever it makes the author feel, this is not the time to show off one’s impressive vocabulary. The reader may be impressed, but he will also be jarred out of the dream. Even if he doesn’t jump up and rush to the dictionary, it will still give him pause to come across a word that makes him puzzle. Anyway, if he has no clue what “aureate grass” is, you’ve wasted your description. When given a choice between fancy, scholarly words or phrases, or the common language of everyday, choose the everyday. Most of your readers will be everyday people, and they will stay entranced, as you want them.

Victorian writers were fond of addressing the reader directly: “Little did she know, dear reader, when she climbed the stairs…” The author doesn’t do a lot of this, but phrases like “he could remember nothing of before, our hero…” smack of Victoriana. Remember the dream – when you are addressing your reader directly, you are reminding him this is only a book, a story you’re telling him, and not something he’s living as he reads it.

And there’s a lot of just plain old-fashioned overwriting. When Baker extends his hand to Joe, “…it secured a tight grip around Joe’s own…” It would be much simpler and clearer if he just took Joe’s hand in a tight grip, wouldn’t it? Or, when Baker “took a bite from his apple, first remembering to remove the cigarette that still hung from his lip…” I suspect most readers wouldn’t imagine him chomping on cigarette and apple together, but if the cigarette must be dispensed with, couldn’t the horse go before the cart?

Also, the book goes on a bit too long after the real story –which would be Joe’s journey—is ended. There’s an art in knowing when to bring down the curtain. No matter how clever what you add in after that point, it’s doing handstands just to show the reader you can do them. Save that for the lawn party when the book comes out.

Okay, yes, nitpicking, and I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t think the author had a genuine talent – but talent alone is not enough. If a writer wants to get better, he must work at his craft as well. The real problem with these problems is that they are first-book mistakes, and this is not a first book—which raises the question, is the author learning? Or content to slide along? Now, I do know that not every writer wants to get better at it. There are those who really aren’t interested in getting good, just in getting successful – they are two different goals, and don’t always go together. This author is good enough, however, that I can’t help thinking he will want to do better. I hope so.

Still, this is a delightful book, one that I think most readers will enjoy aplenty. And, yes, you will probably guess before he gets there where it is Joe is journeying to. Or perhaps not even journeying to, since the author is offering an alternate universe in which all the logical rules needn’t apply—which is to say, maybe he’s already there, maybe always was, just not conscious of it. I am reminded of Stephen Levine’s description of the desired state of being: “Nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to be.” Which, maybe, is what Heaven means.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Simple Treasures by Alan Chin

Reviewer: Victor Banis
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 136

Only the mediocre artist is always at his best – this is why we rightly judge an artist on the body of his work rather than on a single sample – we may just have gotten the wrong sample, that particular book when the writer’s aim surpassed his reach. It happens, but only to the true artist.

I’m happy to say that this time the goal was not beyond the artist’s reach. Simple Treasures couldn’t be a more fitting title for this offering from one of the best writers in the arena today, Alan Chin – because this is indeed a treasure, though writing this good is never really as simple as it looks. Here, as in his best work (but no, of course, not every time) the author goes beyond the confines of writing and enters the realm of art, and his genre is made the richer for it. As both a writer and a reader, I came away from this tale feeling that my experience—of life, of literature - had been greatly enhanced.

The title character, Simple, is a Shoshone. He has just been released from a mental hospital, where he has been abused essentially for the crime of being different. He is offered a job by Lance Bishop in the town of Saint George, Utah. Bishop’s father, Emmett, is an irascible drunk who has driven away every other caregiver – but in fact, Lance wants his father kept drunk. He plans to have his father committed and take control of the ranch, which he means to sell to developers. At first, Emmett rejects Simple’s overtures as well, but he soon recognizes a kindred spirit. There is a romance, too, between Simple and Emmett’s gothic-gay grandson, Jude.

Emmett is dying of cancer, and the ever present vultures roosting atop the barn provide a Greek-chorus reminder of imminent death. It was his wife’s death that sent Emmett into this long, downward spiral of grief and self-pity. Simple’s memory is dead, too—or as he himself explains it, his memory gets flushed clean each night. And Lance is dead to the pleasures of life or the soul. Even Jude is infected, convinced that for him there is no Life for him here, in this town--that Life exists elsewhere, in San Francisco to which he plans to escape.

But that is only the story as told by the words. The real story is written between the lines, and it is about nothing less than the encroachment of death, and the reaffirming of life, through love, through dignity, and the oneness of all existence. A man becomes a memory, a falcon becomes a man, and love bridges the illusory abyss that separates us one from the other. And how magically the author weaves his story, painting indelible pictures from nothing more, it seems, than mere wisps of smoke.

Deep in the human body—yours, mine, everybody’s—there is just one soul that we all share, as if we’re just tiny pieces of the same puzzle…That’s why we’re here in the first place, to make our sliver of the soul shine like the sun.

Chin doesn’t write erotica, but it would be a colder heart than mine that wouldn’t melt sharing Jude and Simple’s “first date” – fishing in Bitter Creek.

Simple’s pole jerked toward the water. “Jesus, I’ve got one.” He hauled the pole back to set the hook.
“Give him line,” Jude said. “Play him.”
Simple leaned out over the water, retrieving line.
With a wicked giggle, Jude shoved Simple, who tumbled into the water and was swept downstream, still holding the rod high over the water. Laughing, Jude ripped off his hat and boots and flung himself into the water. He was swept along, fighting his way toward Simple.
They met in the swirling water and pumped their legs until they stood in the shallows. They shared a sensual hug and kiss. When they broke apart, Simple held up a trout…

Simple sets out to help Emmett transcend his looming death by restoring his dignity and by transferring his spirit into the body of a falcon, and the story climaxes in a stunning ceremony in which man and falcon battle for supremacy while Simple dances and chants himself into an exhausted stupor.

Simple began to dance again. His feet stomped the ground with the same rhythm that Emmett had pounded out with his cane. He chanted and his voice grew in volume…the wind died. Everything went silent—even the crickets hushed—as if the universe were holding its breath. A minute later, the bird shrieked. In the distance, the sound of the wind drifting through the trees grew into a steady pulse, like the slow beating of a heart.

The author occasionally slips into the habit of repeating words where a different word would work better—and although I’m not generally in favor of censorship, I think the writing world would be better for having the word “then” banned from usage by all penmen. And he has developed a tendency to slide into melodrama, which is simply not his forte. Happily, that is minimal here.

Never mind. This is a stunningly beautiful literary effort. In the end, I cannot tell you if the story is a good or a bad one – those are intellectual considerations, but this is not a story told from or to the intellect, it is told from the heart. As Simple tells the old man, Some things can’t be talked about. Words only confuse it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Young Love, Too Soon Gone By Nowell Briscoe

Reviewer: Victor J. Banis
Publisher: MLR Press

A bittersweet tale of, yes, young love, from a refreshing new voice in the genre of gay fiction.

Jack, the narrator, picks his story up more or less in the middle, when young Max sends him a note asking to see him. They meet at a pizza parlor, and as they chat, the story gradually unfolds of the young lovers, Max and Zach – how they met as boys, how friendship became passion and ultimately love – but a star crossed love that ends in a tragedy.

The story does not end with the tragedy, however, as the author cleverly carries us not only backward in time, but forward as well, and gives us, if not a happy ending, one with the promise of happiness to come.

I don’t want to spoil the story by giving too much away, and since the plot is a fairly uncomplicated one, there’s not much I can say about how the early story develops. Suffice to say that the tragedy springs from a family’s blindness to a son’s sexual reality and their insistence on some kind of “normalcy.”

Interestingly, the author manages to create a lot of sexual tension without a lot of sexual activity. To be sure, he and Max share with one another memories of some explicit experiences in the past, but the real sexual tension comes from the attraction that Jack feels for Max and which it appears is reciprocal, and this tension mounts when the pair go from the restaurant to Jack’s apartment to finish their conversation. Neither of them, however, seem to know quite what to do about their attraction—if it is even mutual, and like Jack, we’re never entirely sure of that--and the reader comes away from the scene thinking that after all maybe it was better that they let the moment pass.

What makes this story enjoyable beyond its barebones is the sincerity with which it’s told. One gets a sense that this is something more than a work of fiction, a feeling that the author is simply sharing with his readers his own touching experience. The characters are true to life, and one almost imagines he is in the room with them listening to them talk. I think most of us, like the narrator, have been in those situations where we thought there was a mutual attraction, but we weren’t entirely sure, or weren’t sure how to make anything happen. What makes this work so well is that, just as in real life, we aren’t entirely certain if the other person is feeling the same or if we are just misreading the signals. Make a move, or not? Will I only end up making a fool of myself? Surely we’ve all been there a time or two.

This author also writes a series of columns for his hometown (Monroe, Georgia) newspaper, a series of reminiscences of growing up there, which I have been fortunate enough to read, and the writing in this story is in very much the same voice, more a conversational one than a literary one.

Which only adds to the sense of verity, as if you were catching a glimpse, through a window, of real life. Whatever flaws this story has, it has the great virtue of believability. It rings true, and that is not an easy thing for any writer to accomplish. Hats off to Nowell Briscoe for this, his debut story.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Book Review: A Hundred Little Lies by Jon Wilson

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Cheyenne Publishing
Pages: 211

Jack Tulle owns and runs the general store in the sleepy town of Bodey, Colorado. He and his eight-year-old daughter live above the store. For years he has played the doting father, honest businessman, member of the town council, and pillar of the community. He is respected and admired by all.

But then the local saloon announces plans to hold a professional poker tournament that boasts an impressive grand prize. It is sure to draw the West’s elite card players, which could cause Jack Tulle to loose everything he cares about. You see, for eight years Jack has been living a lie, and lies are like termites, where there is one, there is a whole nest. Lies multiply and build on themselves until you’re standing on a rickety platform that could collapse at the slightest gust of wind. And this poker tournament could prove to be a hurricane for Jack.

The author very cleverly reveals Jack’s hundred little lies one or two at a time. The first reveal comes in the form of Tom Jude, a card shark that Jack used to run with. When Tom shows up a few days before the tournament, the two are reunited and the reader realizes they were more than friends, they were—and still are—in love with each other. After some fairly hot sex, the reader finds they were more than lovers, they were partners-in-crime. Both men were card cheats, con men, and always available for an opportune swindle. They were hard drinking, hard fighting scoundrels.

As more old “business acquaintances” come into town for the tournament, Jack finds himself scrambling to maintain his deception by piling on more lies to the town’s folk. But of course the more lies that accumulate, the more truths that are uncovered. And the reader discovers that at the bottom of the heap are some truths that are much worse than cheating at cards and the odd swindle. Jack is hiding something that could send him to prison, perhaps even the hanging tree. He knows he should simply leave town until everything blows over, but he can’t abide leaving Tom Jude again.

And of course Tom Jude has his own secrets, and Jack feels compelled to get to the bottom of them before it’s too late.

This is a funny, moving, delightful romance. What struck me most is the enchanting voice the narrator takes on, reminiscent of Mark Twain, which adds so much pleasure to the experience. The story is skillfully crafted, and because it takes place over just a few days time, the author goes into delicious detail with each scene.

Because of that detail, the reader is able to drill down into the many layers of the main characters and also the secondary characters. As the layers are pealed away, the tensions rise, making Jack and Tom arc, that is, develop as characters, making this a well-rounded and very satisfying story.

In poker terms, this book is an ace-high straight flush; only it’s anything but straight. It is an exceptional debut novel by a writer everyone should keep on their radar screen. I can highly recommend this story to all readers.