Estep's entertaining fifth novel features three women-half-sisters Alice and Eloise and their ex-junkie mother, Kimberly-navigating relationships, a half-dozen lovers and innumerable dogs. Alice, the elder sister, is a professional gambler and prefers to keep an emotional distance from her lovers. Things go wrong, however, when she attempts to shake off her latest boyfriend, Clayton; to her dismay, she finds she cares for "the big oaf." Meanwhile, Eloise, whose boyfriend recently died, gets involved with the glamorous actress Ava Larkin, whom Kimberly met while walking some of the 17 rescued dogs she shelters. After Alice discovers a secret that Kimberly has been harboring, she and her sister are confronted with the need to transform their apparently coldhearted ways. Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, it loses the witty energy of its zinger first chapter, and, as compared to Estep's adventuresome characters, the conventional nature of Kimberly's secret disappoints. Nevertheless, Estep (Hex) captures the wily spirit of a woman more inclined to give her heart to a dog than to another person. (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Alice Fantasticby Maggie Estep
"The storytelling has vitality and a spirit of rebellion, giving us hope for the future of all those bad girls with dirty faces and bad boys on bikes."The New York Times
"There is about Maggie Estep's work a directness, a clear determinationa drive to cut through, to break through, to claw throughthat is impressive."A.M. Homes,/i>
"The storytelling has vitality and a spirit of rebellion, giving us hope for the future of all those bad girls with dirty faces and bad boys on bikes."The New York Times
"There is about Maggie Estep's work a directness, a clear determinationa drive to cut through, to break through, to claw throughthat is impressive."A.M. Homes, author of The Mistress’s Daughter
"Maggie Estep is the bastard daughter of Raymond Chandler and Anaïs Nin. Her prose is hard-boiled and sexy; she turns a good phrase and shows some leg."Jonathan Ames, author of Wake Up, Sir!
Alice Hunter is a thirty-six-year-old professional gambler living in Queens, New York. She is modestly successful as a horseplayer and enjoys her work. Though avidly pursued by her lover, Clayton, who she refers to as The Big Oaf, Alice's closest companion is Candy, a small spotted dog, and Alice likes it that way. When Clayton's overzealousness leads Alice to ask one of her racetrack cronies to intimidate Clayton into leaving her, a few things go wrong and Alice turns to her half-sister Eloise, a toy maker, whose own lover has just been killed in a freak accident.
There is fierce love between Alice, Eloise, and Kimberly (their unconventional mother), but it takes Alice's accidental discovery of an awful secret Kimberly has been keeping to truly bring three eccentric women, seventeen dogs, and assorted lovers together.
Maggie Estep has published six books, including Hex, a New York Times Notable Book of 2003. Her work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies including: Brooklyn Noir, Queens Noir, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café, The Best American Erotica, and The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. She has performed her work in a wide variety of venues ranging from Lincoln Center to Lollapalooza, Charlie Rose, and HBO's Def Poetry Jam. She lives in Woodstock, New York.
In this engaging novel, Estep, a poet and poetry jam performer and author of the Ruby Murphy mystery series (e.g., Flamethrower), peeks into the lives of three women, their lovers, and their dogs. Alice, mid-thirties and a professional gambler, is trying to break up with Clayton, her big oaf of a boyfriend who just won't take a hint. Her younger half-sister, Eloise, a designer of stuffed animals, is recovering from the sudden death of her lover, a trapeze instructor. She didn't like him all that much, but still.... Their mother, Kimberly, has been finding love with women lately, but her strongest attachment is to the injured and abandoned dogs she rescues, and she frequently foists dogs upon her daughters for fostering. The women were never close, but as the novel takes them through some action-packed months, with changes in lovers, assorted tragedies and mishaps, secrets uncovered, and an ever-changing cast of canines, they come to realize what they mean to one another and that maybe there are needs another human can fill better than a dog can. Edgy in parts, touching in others, but always entertaining.
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Read an Excerpt
By MAGGIE ESTEP
Akashic BooksCopyright © 2009 Maggie Estep
All right reserved.
I'd been trying to get rid of the big oaf for seventeen weeks but he just kept coming around. He'd ring the bell and I'd look out the window and see him standing down there on the stoop looking like a kicked puppy. What I needed with another kicked puppy I couldn't tell you since I'd taken in a little white mutt with tan spots that my cousin Jeremy had found knocked-up and wandering a trailer park in Kentucky. Cousin Jeremy couldn't keep the dog so he called me up and somehow got me to agree to give the animal a home. After making the vet give her an abortion and a rabies shot, Jeremy found the dog a ride up from Kentucky with some freak friend of his who routinely drives between Kentucky and Queens transporting cheap cigarettes. The freak friend pulled his van up outside my building one night just before midnight and the dog came out of it reeking of cigarettes and blinking up at me, completely confused and kicked-looking. Not that I think the freak actually kicked her. But my point is, I already had a kicked puppy. What did I need with a guy looking like one?
I didn't need him. But he'd ring the bell and I'd let him in and, even if I was wearing my dead father's filthy bathrobe and hadn't showered in five days, he'd tell me, "You look fantastic, Alice." I knew he actually meant it, that he saw something fantastic in my limp brown hair and puffy face and the zits I'd started getting suddenly at age thirty-six. It was embarrassing. The zits, the fact that I was letting a big oaf come over to nuzzle at my unbathed flesh, the little dog who'd sit at the edge of the bed watching as me and Clayton, the big oaf, went at it.
My life was a shambles.
So I vowed to end it with Clayton. I vowed it on a Tuesday at 7 a.m. after waking up with an unusual sense of clarity. I opened my eyes to find thin winter sunlight sifting in the windows of the house my dead father left me. Candy, the trailer trash dog, was sitting at the edge of the bed, politely waiting for me to wake up because that's the thing with strays, they're so grateful to have been taken in that they defer to your schedule and needs. So Candy was at the edge of the bed and sun was coming in the windows of my dead father's house on 47th Road in the borough of Queens in New York City. And I felt clear-headed. Who knows why. I just did. And I felt I needed to get my act together. Shower more frequently. Stop smoking so much. Get back to yoga and kickboxing. Stop burning through my modest profits as a modest gambler. Revitalize myself. And the first order of business was to get rid of the big oaf, Clayton. Who ever heard of a guy named Clayton who isn't ninety-seven years old anyway?
I got into the shower and scrubbed myself then shampooed my thick curtain of oily hair. I got clean clothes out of the closet instead of foraging through the huge pile in the hamper the way I'd been doing for weeks. I put on black jeans and a fuzzy green sweater. I glanced at myself in the mirror. My semi-dry hair looked okay and my facial puffiness had gone done. Even my zits weren't so visible. I looked vaguely alive.
I took my coat off the hook, put Candy's leash on, and headed out to walk her by the East River, near the condo high-rises that look over into Manhattan. My dead father loved Long Island City. He moved here the 1970s, when it was almost entirely industrial, to shack up with some drunken harlot right after my mother broke up with him so she could take up with the rock musician who fathered my half-sister. Long after the harlot had dumped my father-all women dumped my father all the time-he'd stayed on in the neighborhood, eventually buying a tiny two-story wood frame house that he left to me, his lone child, when the cancer got him last year at age fifty-five. I like Long Island City just fine. It's quiet and there are places to buy tacos.
"Looking good, mamí," said some guy as Candy and I walked past the gas station.
I glowered at the guy.
As Candy sniffed and pissed and tried to eat garbage off the pavement, I smoked a few Marlboros and stared across at midtown Manhattan. It looked graceful from this distance.
The air was so cold it almost seemed clean and I started thinking on how I would rid myself of Clayton. I'd tried so many times. Had gotten him to agree not to call me anymore. But then, not two days would go by before he'd ring the bell. And I'd let him in. He'd look at me with those enormous brown eyes and tell me how great I looked. "Alice, you're fantastic," he told me so many times I started thinking of myself as Alice Fantastic, only there really wouldn't be anything fantastic about me until I got rid of Clayton.
I'd start in on the This isn't going to work for me anymore, Clayton refrain I had been trotting out for seventeen weeks. At which, he would look wounded and his arms would hang so long at his sides that I'd have to touch him, and once I touched him, we'd make a beeline for the bed; the sex was pretty good the way it can be with someone you are physically attracted to in spite of, or because of, a lack of anything at all in common, and the sex being good would make me entertain the idea of instating Clayton on some sort of permanent basis, and I guess that was my mistake. He'd see that little idea in my eye and latch onto it and have feelings and his feelings would make him a prodigious lover and I'd become so strung out on sex chemicals I would dopily say Sure when he'd ask to spend the night and then again dopily say Sure the next morning when he'd ask if he could call me later.
But enough is enough. I don't want Clayton convincing himself we're going to be an everlasting item growing old together in a trailer park in Florida.
Right now Clayton lives in a parking lot. In his van. This I discovered when, that first night, after I picked him up in the taco place and strolled with him near the water, enjoying his simplicity and his long, loping gait, I brought him home and went down on him in the entrance hall and asked him to fuck me from behind in the kitchen and then led him to the bedroom where we lay quiet for a little while until he was hard again at which point I put on a pair of tights and asked him to rip out the crotch-after all that, just when I was thinking of a polite way of asking him to leave, he propped himself up on one elbow and told me how much he liked me. "I really like you, I mean, I really like you," looking at me with those eyes big as moons and, even though I just wanted to read a book and go to sleep, I didn't have the heart to kick him out.
All that night he babbled at me, telling me his woes. His mother has Alzheimer's and his father is in prison for forgery. His wife left him for a plumber and he's been fired from his job at a cabinet-making shop and is living in his van in a parking lot and showering at the Y.
"I've got to get out of Queens soon," he said.
"And go where?"
"Florida. I don't like the cold much. Gets in my bones."
"Yeah. Florida," I said. I'd been there. To Gulfstream Park, Calder Race Course, and Tampa Bay Downs. I didn't tell him that though. I just said, Yeah, Florida, like I wasn't opposed to Florida, though why I would let him think I have any fondness for Florida, this leading him to possibly speculate that I'd want to go live there with him, I don't know. I suppose I wanted to be kind to him.
"Just a trailer is fine. I like trailers," Clayton said.
"Right," I said. And then I feigned sleep.
That was seventeen weeks ago. And I still haven't gotten rid of him.
Candy and I walked for the better part of an hour before heading home, passing back by the gas station where the moron felt the need to repeat, "Looking good, mamí." I actually stopped walking, stared at him, and tried to think of words to explain exactly how repulsive it is to be called mamí because I just hear it as mommy, which makes me picture the guy having sex with his own mother who is doubtless a matronly woman with endless folds of ancient flesh and cobwebs between her legs, but I couldn't find the words, and the guy was starting to grin, possibly thinking I was actually turned on by him, so I kept walking.
Once back inside my place, I gave Candy the leftovers from my previous night's dinner and sat down at the kitchen table with my computer, my Daily Racing Form, and my notebooks. I got to work on the next day's races at Aqueduct. No matter how much I planned to change my life in the coming weeks, I still had to work. It wasn't much of a card, even for a Wednesday in February, so I figured I wouldn't be pushing much money through the windows. But I would watch. I would take notes. I would listen. I would enjoy my work. I always do. No matter how bad a losing streak I might endure, no matter how many times common sense tried to dictate that I find stable employment and a life devoid of risk-generated heart arrhythmias. I am a gambler.
Several hours passed and I felt stirrings of hunger and glanced inside my fridge. Some lifeless lettuce, a few ounces of orange juice, and one egg. I considered boiling the egg, as there are days when there's nothing I love more than a hardboiled egg, but I decided this wasn't one of those days. I would have to go to the taco place for takeout. I attached Candy's leash to her collar and threw my coat on and was heading to the door when the phone rang. I picked it up.
"Hi, Alice," came Clayton's low voice.
"What's the matter? You in pain?"
"What do you mean? What hurts? I'll be right there."
"No, no, Clayton, don't. My pain is that you won't take no for an answer."
"No about what?"
"No about our continuing on like this."
There was silence.
"Where are you?" I asked.
"In the parking lot."
"Ah," I said. "Clayton, I know you think you're a nice guy but there's nothing nice about coming around when I've repeatedly asked you not to. It's borderline stalking."
"I need my peace and quiet."
More silence. Then, after several minutes: "You don't like the way I touch you anymore?"
"There's more to life than touching."
"Uh," said Clayton. "I wouldn't know since you won't ever let me do anything with you other than come over and fuck you."
Clayton had never said fuck before. Clayton had been raised in some sort of religious household.
"My life is nothing, Clayton, I go to the racetrack. I make my bets and take my notes and chain-smoke to keep from vomiting out of fear. I talk to some of the other horseplayers. I go home and cook dinner or I go to the taco place. I walk my dog. That's it. There's nothing to my life, Clayton, nothing to see."
"So let me come with you."
"Come with me where?"
"To the racetrack."
"I'm asking you to never call me again and get out of my life. Why would I want to take you to the racetrack?"
"Just let me see a little piece of your life. I deserve it. Think of it as alimony."
I couldn't see why I should do anything for him. But I agreed anyway. At least it got him off the phone.
I took Candy with me to the taco place. Came home and ate my dinner, giving half to the dog.
I'd told Clayton to meet me the next morning at 11:00 and we'd take the subway. He offered to drive but I didn't trust that monstrous van of his not to break down en route. He rang the bell and I came downstairs to find him looking full of hope. Like seeing each other in daylight hours meant marriage and babies were imminent. Not that he'd asked for anything like that but he was that kind of guy, the kind of guy I seem to attract all too often, the want-to-snuggle-up-and-breed kind of guy. There are allegedly millions of women out there looking for these guys so I'm not sure why they all come knocking on my door. I guess they like a challenge. That's why they're men.
"Hi, Alice," he beamed, "you look fantastic."
"Thanks," I said. I had pulled myself together, was wearing a tight black knee-length skirt and a soft black sweater that showed some shoulder-if I ever took my coat off, which I wasn't planning to do as I figured any glimpse of my flesh might give Clayton ideas.
"I'm just doing this cause you asked," I said as we started walking to the G train, "but you have to realize this is my job and you can't interfere or ask a lot of questions." I was staring straight forward so I didn't have to see any indications of hurt in his eyes because this was one of his ruses, the hurt look, the kicked-puppy look, and I was damn well sick of it.
"Right," said Clayton.
We went down into the station and waited forever as one invariably does for the G train and all the while Clayton stared at me so hard I was pretty sure he would turn me to stone.
Eventually, the train came and got us to the Hoyt-Schermerhorn stop in Brooklyn where we switched to the far more efficient A train. I felt relief at being on my way to Aqueduct. Not many people truly love Aqueduct, but I do. Belmont is gorgeous and spacious and Saratoga is grand if you can stand the crowds, but I love Aqueduct. Aqueduct is where you see down-on-their-luck trainers slumping on benches, degenerates, droolcases, and drunks swapping tips, and a few seasoned pro gamblers stoically going about their business. My kind of place.
Thirty minutes later, the train sighed into the stop at Aqueduct and we got off. It was me and Clayton, a bunch of hunched middle-aged white men, a few slightly younger Rasta guys, and one well-dressed man who was an owner or wanted to pretend to be one.
"Oh, it's nice," Clayton lied as we emerged from the little tunnel under the train tracks.
The structure looks like the set for a 1970s zombie movie, with its faded pastels tinged with that ubiquitous New York City gray and airplanes headed for JFK flying so low you're sure they're going to land on a horse.
"We'll go up to the restaurant, have some omelets," I told Clayton once we were inside the clubhouse. "The coffee sucks but the omelets are fine."
"Okay," said Clayton.
We rode the escalator to the top and, at the big glass doors to the Equestris Restaurant, Manny, the maître d', greeted me and gave us a table with a great view of the finish line.
Then Clayton started in with the questions. He'd never been a big question guy, wasn't a very verbal guy period, but suddenly he wanted to know the history of Aqueduct and my history with Aqueduct and what else I'd ever done for a living and what my family thought of my being a professional gambler, etc.
"I told you, I have to work. No twenty questions. Here's a Racing Form," I said, handing him the extra copy I'd printed out, "now study that and let me think."
The poor guy stared at the Form but obviously had no idea how to read it. Sometimes I forget that people don't know these things. It seems like I always knew, what with coming here when I was a kid when Cousin Jeremy still lived in Queens and babysat me on days when my father was off on a construction job. I'd been betting since the age of nine and had been reasonably crafty about money management and risk-taking since day one. I had turned a profit that first day when Jeremy had placed bets for me, and though I'd had plenty of painful streaks since, the vertiginous highs still outnumbered the lows. I scraped by. I'd briefly had a job as a substitute high school teacher after graduating from Hunter College but I found it achingly dull. So I gambled. Not many people last more than a few years doing it for a living but I have. Mostly because the thought of doing anything else is unbearable. I would feel like a citizen.
I was just about to take pity on Clayton and show him how to read the Form when Arthur appeared and sat down at one of the extra chairs at our table.
"You see this piece of shit Pletcher's running in the fifth race?" Arthur wanted to know. Arthur, who weighs 125 pounds tops, isn't one for pleasantries. He had no interest in being introduced to Clayton and probably hadn't even noticed I was with someone. He just wanted confirmation that the Todd Pletcher-trained colt in the fifth race was a piece of shit in spite of having cost 2.4 million at the Keeneland yearling sale.
"Yeah," I said, nodding gravely. "He'll be 1-9."
"He's a flea," said Arthur.
"Yeah. Well. I wouldn't throw him out on a Pick 6 ticket."
Excerpted from ALICE FANTASTIC by MAGGIE ESTEP Copyright © 2009 by Maggie Estep. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Maggie Estep has published six books, including Hex, a New York Times Notable Book of 2003. Her work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies including: Brooklyn Noir, Queens Noir, Aloud: Voices form the Nuyorican Poets Café, The Best American Erotica, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, and The KGB Bar Reader. Maggie was coeditor, with Jason Starr, of Bloodlines:
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We have lost a truly gifted author. What an amazing imagination and gift for imagery and storytelling. Thank you, Maggie, for everything you gave us.