Michael Paulson

What if, say, God were a Manhattan father named Blaine who cures his son of cancer, discusses theology with a Catholic priest and proves his divinity by winning $100,000 playing blackjack at the Bellagio in Vegas? Well, He isn't, but in this deliciously intriguing first novel by Mike Bryan, Blaine does exist sort of.

Bryan, writing as himself (or so it seems), claims The Afterword is indeed the lengthy afterword to The Deity Next Door, a fabricated piece of fiction that spent 102 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Detailing the aforementioned Blaine's process of discovering and dealing with his unique circumstances, the novel-within-a-novel explores the parallels between the new deity and Jesus, as well as the author's explanation of how the story was written. Though a bit dizzying at first, The Afterword quickly establishes itself once Bryan focuses on telling the actual story of Blaine. What follows is a wide-ranging inquiry into such weighty topics as religion, faith and the human condition. Bryan handles these adroitly, peppering his exploration with Biblical quotes and references from a diverse collection of other sources (fictional friends and acquaintances, supposedly true tales from the field of psychology); what emerges is a thoughtful, sensitive investigation into matters spiritual. Yet the novel refuses to let itself be labeled merely an interesting work of theological fiction, for Bryan adds a layer of authorial intrusion that pulls the reader further into this piece of clever post-modern prose.

One way to read The Afterword is as the extended conversation that would result if the author were asked, “So, how does a book come about?” Bryan dodges the more difficult task of actually writing The Deity Next Door, since he essentially provides an outline of that story (albeit one saturated with fascinating theoretical plot twists and strands of character development that didn't pan out) without the burden of adding a skin of dialogue, description, and other accoutrements of the modern novel. But we learn enough of Blaine the Possible Messiah to recognize him as an ordinary, likable man who just happens, maybe, to possess omnipotence. He asks questions about his predicament just like anyone else would, and the trappings of divinity do not sit easily on him. Bryan certainly deserves praise for creating such a character, even if He exists solely within the confines of Mike Bryan's considerable imagination. Michael Paulson is a teacher in Baltimore.

What if, say, God were a Manhattan father named Blaine who cures his son of cancer, discusses theology with a Catholic priest and proves his divinity by winning $100,000 playing blackjack at the Bellagio in Vegas? Well, He isn't, but in this deliciously intriguing first novel by Mike Bryan, Blaine does exist sort of. Bryan, […]

In this novel of the modern American West, Mark Spragg exposes the stark lives of two men struggling to find happiness amid the raw landscape of Wyoming.

Barnum McEban, a 40-year-old rancher with a lame foot and an equally crippled past, stolidly maintains his family's land with Ansel, a weathered cowboy who speaks with laconic wisdom on everything from calves to women. When McEban's best friend, Bennett, discovers his wife, Gretchen, has run off to be with her lover, the two men embark on an odyssey to find her. Along the way, they pick up a pair of Shoshone Indian siblings: the enigmatic woman-child, Rita, and her younger brother, Paul. The four make a curious band of companions but quickly grow into an odd family unit, doggedly pursuing Gretchen.

In addition to this narrative of the present, Spragg includes a parallel thread, that of McEban's childhood. We learn of McEban's alcoholic father and the rancher's love for Gretchen, which further complicates the present-day quest. The novel is laced with quick bursts of violence that appear jarring at first, but these episodes never cross over into gratuitous brutality. Indeed, they serve a distinct purpose, underscoring the harsh nature of the West and the fragility of its people, though Spragg's characters possess a hard-edged grace. Despite hardships and tragedy, they demonstrate remarkable compassion and empathy for one other; moreover, their honesty, a blunt brand of candor that obscures all traces of maudlin sentiment, mirrors the sobering realities each must face and negotiate. Spragg's writing reflects the plot and characters, flowing in sparse, elegant prose.

A Wyoming native and author of the well-received memoir Where Rivers Change Direction, Spragg handles the dual narratives effectively, easily delineating between the two, yet splicing them together to form the larger story. He has applied his considerable storytelling skills to give us a tale of love and loss under the broad skies of the contemporary frontier, a landscape that looms gray and bleak, stripped of mythology but possessing memorable pockets of humanity brimming with haunting stories. Michael Paulson teaches English in Baltimore.

In this novel of the modern American West, Mark Spragg exposes the stark lives of two men struggling to find happiness amid the raw landscape of Wyoming. Barnum McEban, a 40-year-old rancher with a lame foot and an equally crippled past, stolidly maintains his family's land with Ansel, a weathered cowboy who speaks with laconic […]

Robert Morgan paints a searing portrait of a North Carolina family during the 1920s in his latest novel, This Rock. Ginny Powell, widowed for years, tries to keep her sons together while they struggle to survive in a grim Appalachian valley. Moody, true to his name, looms sullen and mean-spirited, running moonshine and developing a reputation as a knife-fighter. The younger brother, Muir, dreams of building things and escaping the valley. The conflict between the two runs rampant throughout the book, spilling over into internecine violence.

As he demonstrated in Gap Creek, a widely admired novel that became an Oprah Book Club selection, Morgan has a gift for capturing the cadences and diction of North Carolina mountain people. An honesty bordering on intense self-reflection graces the voices of both Ginny and Muir, who alternate in narrating the novel. Ginny remains preoccupied with making peace between her sons, and her anguish at Moody's self-destructive behavior parallels the anxiety she feels with Muir's restlessness. She is a tough but tender woman, tempered by tragedy and hardship, fixated on her family. She is also a curious hybrid of Pentecostal and Baptist, and she limns her story with a heavy spiritual tone. The chapters narrated by Muir also reveal a spirituality (at the age of 16, he feels called to be a preacher, and later, in a moment of drunken epiphany, he charges himself with building a church) as well as his wanderlust. At one point, Muir lights out for Canada, only to encounter bewildering cities and people on his journey. This collision of urban and rural proves too intense, and he eventually returns to North Carolina chastened and humbled.

Morgan's prose is sharp and saturated with details, and he has a particular talent for describing the intricacies of manual labor. He can spend pages chronicling the minutiae of clearing land on a mountain in order to build a road, though never in a fashion to bore or stunt the story's flow. Indeed, he imbues his writing with a sort of lyrical sheen, taking particular delight in illustrating with words the mountains, forests and rivers of Appalachia. The sum of these parts is a novel that explores the relationship between people and land in a way both moving and spiritual.

Michael Paulson teaches English in Baltimore.

 

Robert Morgan paints a searing portrait of a North Carolina family during the 1920s in his latest novel, This Rock. Ginny Powell, widowed for years, tries to keep her sons together while they struggle to survive in a grim Appalachian valley. Moody, true to his name, looms sullen and mean-spirited, running moonshine and developing a […]

Alexander Short works in the New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers as a reference specialist, spending his days amid call slips and idiosyncratic librarians. When he receives an elegantly penned query for a book titled Secret Compartments in Eighteenth-Century Furniture, Short becomes embroiled in a search for a priceless watch that gradually consumes his professional and personal life. The Grand Complication, Allen Kurzweil's second novel, takes this premise and spins an intelligent mystery spanning two centuries.

Henry James Jesson III, a middle-aged, wealthy, enigmatic collector, enlists Short to help track the Grand Complication, an antique watch that would complete one of his collections. Jesson is a genuine eccentric who lives alone (save for a butler) in a cloistered Manhattan house, speaks in archaic, erudite diction, and remains egregiously ignorant of all things modern. Short rigorously researches the history of the Grand Complication, from its creation by a Swiss inventor to its theft from a Jerusalem museum. Meanwhile, Jesson manipulates him by withholding information, Short's wife throws him out of their apartment for his growing obsession with the watch, and the young librarian navigates the treacherous water of library politics in an effort to keep his job and locate the fantastic timepiece. Kurzweil balances the dialogue deftly, alternating between Jesson's antiquated, high culture pronouncements and the younger Short's more colloquial speech; their contrasting voices nicely demonstrate the divide between the two protagonists, a gulf that becomes increasingly demarcated as the story progresses. The library itself serves as mute third protagonist. Kurzweil sets much of the novel there, and he continually drops wonderfully eclectic nuggets of information into our laps regarding the Dewey Decimal System, book binding practices and conservation techniques. The library's staff, including stuffy mandarins and autodidactic janitors, flesh out the story. Indeed, Kurzweil delights in using these secondary characters as colorful backdrops to the plot.

A charming energy floods the novel, and Kurzweil neatly pulls off the author's trick of entertaining even as he educates.

Michael Paulson teaches English in Baltimore.

 

Alexander Short works in the New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers as a reference specialist, spending his days amid call slips and idiosyncratic librarians. When he receives an elegantly penned query for a book titled Secret Compartments in Eighteenth-Century Furniture, Short becomes embroiled in a search for a priceless watch that gradually […]

very bachelor actor-bartender living in New York City needs a female friend to serve as a sounding-board, advisor and drill sergeant. Johnny Downs, the protagonist of James Wolcott's The Catsitters, has a doozy in Darlene Rider. Though she lives in Georgia and dispenses counsel over the phone, Darlene's presence in this novel reverberates loudly. She advises Johnny on dating, analyzes Polaroid photos he sends of his potential love interests and ships a pair of eccentric women to watch his cat while he's out of town. Despite Darlene's protestations to the contrary, Johnny seems to do OK for himself, as a succession of attractive women filter in and out of his life (though more often out than in). By observing Johnny's daily habits, we become familiar with the routine of the ordinary actor tend bar at parties, audition, shoot corny commercials and repeat the cycle ad nauseum. The story itself seems simple enough, revolving around Johnny's search for romance and all the usual complications accompanying such a quest. Yet in the hands of Wolcott, literary critic for Vanity Fair, a possibly mundane plot becomes incessantly interesting. This is a funny book, almost anthropological in its insights into contemporary mating rituals. Wolcott offers balanced perspectives from both genders, with extended sections of dialogue between Johnny and Darlene; the author refuses to choose sides, instead allowing us to witness a sardonic battle of the sexes. Readers who have participated in the dating game will chuckle knowingly with nearly every page. Not only does Johnny's narrative voice sparkle with a dry, almost deadpan wit, but this intermittently employed actor proves a genuinely likable guy: funny, sincere, a cat lover someone we can root for.

A host of characters season the story: Gleason, Johnny's best friend and fellow actor who drops sarcastic comments regarding romance and alcohol, and Claudia, the stunning, haughty actress who haunts Johnny with her frequent appearances and disappearances. All help push the narrative forward, adding generous dollops of quirkiness to the book. Wolcott doesn't pretend to have any great answers to the question what is love? but he does offer us a few suggestions, neatly packaged as an entertaining comic novel.

Michael Paulson teaches English in Baltimore.

very bachelor actor-bartender living in New York City needs a female friend to serve as a sounding-board, advisor and drill sergeant. Johnny Downs, the protagonist of James Wolcott's The Catsitters, has a doozy in Darlene Rider. Though she lives in Georgia and dispenses counsel over the phone, Darlene's presence in this novel reverberates loudly. She […]

alph Messenger is a cognitive scientist with a fondness for cheating on his wife and ruminating on the nature of human consciousness. Helen Reed, widow and moderately successful novelist, arrives at the fictional University of Gloucester to teach creative writing, where she finds herself gradually drawn into the Messengers' social circle and Ralph's romantic snare. Thinks might sound like an ordinary novel of infidelity, but in the hands of critically acclaimed English novelist David Lodge (Therapy, Home Truths), it evolves into a shining book, by turns witty, charming, sobering and honest. Lodge employs three narrative voices, two of which are the highly subjective reflections of its protagonists, the third an objective narrator. These disparate voices work particularly well, since the novel spends a good deal of time focusing on the debates between Helen and Ralph regarding consciousness.

Infidelity laces the story. Ralph maintains a tacit understanding with his American-born wife, supposedly limiting his affairs to brief encounters while at academic conferences. Other characters indulge in adultery as well. These dalliances aren't so much judged as examined under a critical lens, either literary or scientific. In fact, the entire novel might be considered a dialogue between these two views of consciousness. Lodge has done his homework, supplying ample information about the latest research conducted by cognitive scientists.

The story also succeeds in its frequently comic, sometimes grim depiction of modern English university life. The University of Gloucester houses a diverse collection of academics, though none stray into stereotype. Lodge deftly adds depth to each character, no matter how briefly they appear on the novel's stage. He keeps our attention not only with multiple narrators, but by sporadically straying from traditional literary conventions. He includes, for example, an e-mail correspondence between Ralph and Helen; on other occasions, he presents us with writing exercises produced by Helen's students, which constitute some of the funniest pieces in this delightful novel.

Michael Paulson teaches English at Penn State University.

alph Messenger is a cognitive scientist with a fondness for cheating on his wife and ruminating on the nature of human consciousness. Helen Reed, widow and moderately successful novelist, arrives at the fictional University of Gloucester to teach creative writing, where she finds herself gradually drawn into the Messengers' social circle and Ralph's romantic snare. […]

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