Saturday, March 17, 2012

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.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Book Review: The Peripheral Son by Dorien Grey

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Zumaya Publications
Pages: 235

Victor Koseva is a loner, has few friends, is the black sheep of a dysfunctional family who has nothing to do with him, and he is gay. While working as an investigative reporter, covering a story concerning doping within a professional boxing syndicate, he disappears without a trace.

Victor’s sister-in-law hires Dick Hardesty to investigate. Hardesty piles up more questions than clues until Victor’s body is found at the bottom of a ravine near a popular gay cruising area. All signs point to an accident, and the case looks closed, but Hardesty has other ideas. He keeps following a trail of clues that bring him up close and personal with a handsome gay middleweight boxer with eyes on the championship, Victor’s kleptomaniacal ex-boyfriend, and a host of suspicious and unsavory characters who were at the right place at the wrong time. Was it murder or an accident?

As will all of Dorien Grey’s mysteries, the author gives the reader plenty of opportunity to know Hardesty’s family: partner, Jonathan, and son, Joshua. And the reader gets a feel for the rich and loving life they share, which is a nice contrast from the gritty dealings of a murder case. Although it did seem to me that Dick and Jonathan’s relationship was not as intimate as in previous novels. Could the stress of raising a child be draining the romance out of their relationship?

This mystery is not the most exciting read on the shelf. As with all Dorien’s stories, he doesn’t use explicit sex, or gunplay, or bombs blowing up baby carriages in order to titillate the reader. And because he places his stories in the ‘80s, he doesn’t use familiar computer or iPhone apps to help him solve the cases. He uses solid storytelling to guide his readers to a logical conclusion. It is a puzzle that must be muddled over, worried like a dog with a bone.

Mystery purists will no doubt enjoy this 14th book in the Dick Hardesty series. But Grey’s writing style will allow all readers to enjoy this novel. I can recommend this to all readers who enjoy well-developed characters and an intricate plot.