The protagonist of newcomer Larson's novel is Joe Stoyanovich, who could well be described as a case of arrested development. A writer of children's books, he dabbles in historical scholarship and political activism and hangs out with a circle of friends whose exceedingly meager careers serve in some sense to magnify his own. The son of old-style leftists, named after Stalin and raised to revere Khrushchev, he finds himself unable to forgive his father for abandoning his mother to marry a much younger womanwhile his father, in turn, resents Joe for his role in the accidental death of his younger brother. Joe himself is going through several more contemporary traumas, not the least of which is the abortion that his girlfriend has just told him about (after the fact). His biggest concern, however, is the sexual abuse charge that a local 13-year-old has filed against him. Felice, the girl in question, recants her in-court testimony at the last minute, but not before Joe finds himself thoroughly tarred in public as a pedophile. Although his reactions and concerns regarding the trial make up much of his story, there is a strange distance in his musings that suggests something other than stoicism, and this general lack of passion seems to inform the work throughout: "In the final analysis, the fact that I never meant to touch Felice inappropriately, or that I may not have caused my brother's death are trivial considerations." Whether Joe is traumatized, cold- blooded, or emotionally retarded in some other, unexplained, way does not finally matter, of course. What is frustrating is how his profound uncertainty about the importance of his life quickly permeates the story and infects the reader.
Competently written but thoroughly flat and ultimately annoying.
- Permanent Press, The
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Read an Excerpt
By Doran Larson
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1997 Doran Larson
All rights reserved.
My name is Joseph Stoyanovich. I write children's books.
If not by my recent infamy, you may know me as the creator of Baxter Bear, Otto Octopus, and Wally Warthog, those characters of dark whimsy, both reviewed in popular magazines and featured in preschool libraries from Anchorage to Mobile. It is not a vocation one gives up easily. Paid well for work that is blessedly simple, I am admired in crowded classrooms. I am applauded in print.
And the letters.
Adult men and women, educated, successful ... They write thanks for stories of evil dashed by honest struggle, tales that cast pastel life-ropes across the world awaiting their children. For myself, I can spend hours trying to convey, in the simplest words, the simplest moral precept. I will skip O'Neill and Ionesco to sit at the back of a gym watching six-year-olds forget lines to Jack and the Bean Stalk. I can wait through a green light, through honking horns and threats of violence, while first-graders chat to a crossing guard.
Yet such affection has cost me friends, career, even a beloved city.
I had certain ideas about myself.
Things happened. Those ideas changed.
Now I am ready to own up.
Though the fashion today is the nationally-televised, blame-wielding confession, I will start by securing alibis for friends and relatives. I will show how much anyone really knew of me at the time of my downfall. We will take a stroll through my wardrobe.
In the closet of my upstairs flat, in the house that I own in a recently gentrified section of Buffalo, New York, there hang pleated corduroy trousers, textured shirts in a Guatemalan motif, and black leather sneakers for a weekend of antiquing with Gordon and Greta — tenured renaissance scholars who haven't actually reread a word of Shakespeare in nearly a decade, and double their double income dealing in east-side real estate. There are soft-weave jackets and pastel ties for an appearance at the Kiddie-Lit workshop in Yourtown, USA. One pair of faded levis, black T-shirt, and thin studded belt for the evening when Sylvia and Max (interior designer, visual artist) forgo Vivaldi for a bowling and beer session that inspires Max to a triptych based on groups of ten in triangles — complete with ominous black presence — which will win him the grant to pay off his two abortive years in law school, and the last five thousand on his vintage Porsche.
But at the other end of my closet, things are not so painfully with-it.
There you will find a brown button-down sweater, cotton and polyester two-pocket shirts, and in my drawer, an honorary University of Buffalo sweatshirt, white socks, and tight BVDs. These are the clothes I wear to visit my half brother William, whose taste is one with the child-bearing normalcy of his life.
I am a man, in short, who dresses not only for the social, but for the moral occasion; a man of the people among whom I find myself on any given occasion. That is why people like me. That is why, even in my private life, I am so loved.
I encourage. I provide confirmation.
With Gordon and Greta, Sylvia and Max, I snigger over the daily papers and sentimental movies. Yet the very next evening you can find me packed onto the couch with my half brother, half niece, half nephew, and half sister-in-law, eating popcorn and sipping non-diet soda to reruns of The Waltons, or breathlessly thrilling when handsome American pilots turn entire buildings, in some desert nation, into mere puffs of smoke. This in fact is why I live in Buffalo — to repose within the bosom of my brother's family. For only as an uncle in cardigans can one take long walks with a blonde and freshly feminine seven-year-old without raising an eyebrow. Only as an uncle is one privy to the tender good nights, the prayers at bedside, the last kisses before lights out that an unattached bachelor never knows. In return, I am every child's favorite baby-sitter. For I am as incapable of meaningful discipline as I am of not returning their funny faces or reading stories at their most casual whim.
In such a position, moreover, I know firsthand the joy I bring in my multichrome pages. Thus I can continue to live with myself in tolerable comfort even after a new Wally Warthog adventure arrives at my doorstep, and I rush inside, locking the front, hall, and study doors behind me, to scribble obscene dialogues above each character, filling every free space and margin with mockery of these platitudinous texts.
My pleasure in this defilement — even as the work is lisped and cooed across the nation — this pleasure is, I confess, onanistic. After two hours of minute scratching, I emerge from the room in a crust of dried sweat. I shower, shave, and take myself to dinner in a restaurant where, not infrequently, another copy of the same Wally Warthog will be thrust above my peas and steamed cabbage by a perky preschool teacher. And then I simply, discreetly, like the last thin puff from a postcoital cigarette, sign my name.
I am thanked.
And return to my corned beef.
How was it then that a girl barely pubescent brought this life to public crisis?
Was it that I carried the depressive mania of a father who once lay for six hours at the foot of our coat closet, in perfect blackness, then rushed us all to a truck-stop diner, and when the pork chop came cold to the table began screaming at my mother for selling him out to his enemies before kidnapping his two sons for a mad drive across three states, reciting whole chapters of Stalin despite our cries for food and water, stopping only for gas and candy and cigarettes, and to sing the "Marseillaise" in the lobbies of banks and loan companies from Philadelphia to Fort Wayne?
Or was it that she unearthed the bit of my dead younger brother, residing in a corner of my heart? At age eight, Dain had gone into the hospital with kidney trouble. In the waiting room, while my mother interrogated the surgeon wearing his sweaty mask like some ill-conceived necklace, my father lit a cigarette, quaking with the effort to avert his own tumble into mental darkness. His long hand caught my shoulder, the tips pressing the middle of my ten-year-old chest. "Things just don't work out sometimes." Then he dropped onto the couch, pressed his glasses to the blue pads at the top of his nose, opened a notepad, and started to write. I sat beside him. My hands on my knees, I watched Dain lie effortlessly in the air near the TV. His head was propped in one palm, smirking at an episode of Donna Reed.
Without warning, I would discover him floating in the sky or lounging in upper corners of the house. Sometimes he merely looked thin. At others his eyes were glassy and burning, with IV tubes leeching from his arms. Perhaps it was his fouled blood that I carried, the blood that had made him look like a shrunken old man.
The last time he spoke to me as a boy, we were supposed to visit the Kennebucks, a couple who appeared each summer beneath the oak tree that hovered over our gravel drive, their Lincoln's trunk bearing homemade beer, jarred tomatoes, and the balsa ships Charlie Kennebuck had spent the year building, and he and I ritually shot to pieces with slingshots on a shallow of the Delaware.
I'd heard my mother and father through the bedroom wall, arguing about the trial of Dr. Spock, and whether we would stop to see her sister, my Aunt Grace, whose son had died in Vietnam. I was twelve, sitting up in bed and inspecting the morning paper through a magnifying glass. They would never fight in my presence. The doctor said it aggravated my eye trouble — a sudden and inexplicable jerking from side to side. (I'd perhaps inherited the condition from my father. While Dain was alive, after my father had mocked a speech by Kennedy or MacNamara or Johnson, he would pause and hold his hand out flat over the table. "Look. Just look at what they're doing! Will you look at that!" And his thin hand vibrated like an autumn leaf. It was as though inside him were some seismic device for registering moral absurdities, and he wanted us to take readings of our own.)
Ten years earlier, in 1958, while my father was running for governor on the Progressive ticket, he had built a small shelter in the back of our Ford pickup by nailing a sheet of plywood across the side panels. We lived then on Party donations and my mother's income writing for a shoe catalogue for men with extra wide feet. (There is a picture of my mother carrying me on one arm and pumping out mimeographed broadsides with the other beneath the Dutch-Uncle eyes of Karl Marx, who for years I confused, in both look and legend, with Santa Claus.) From Allentown to Pitcairn we were rousted and questioned by the police in every city and township, so he decided we could sleep in the truck.
Now, older and grayer behind glasses, he was tying the suitcases to the top of the plywood, despite my mother's protests that they would blow off. It was a misty spring morning. I was lying on my usual perch, a low branch of the old oak tree, just feet above the pickup. My father was not particularly handy and worked with exaggerated concentration to make his lumpy web of rope appear planned. I had watched her put things inside the red suitcase to visit her sister. My eyes jerked once. Standing on the porch steps (I have a photograph of her standing just there, in sunlight, still pregnant with my brother), she was wearing jeans and a red blouse. He wore the sagging black sweater he always wrote in, its pockets stretched low as ancient teats with crumpled packs of Tareytons, wooden matches, pencil stubs, and the tiny notepads on which he occasionally stopped everything to scribble ideas. Like frightened kittens, his shaking hands took cover in his black pockets. "I want my suitcase down," she insisted.
"It won't go anywhere."
"Not until you bring it down it won't."
I looked toward the Plymouth across the road, at George and Allen, the FBI men assigned to us for the past three years. (They never did watch us very closely. But by inventing suspicious behavior, they could ride out retirement without being shot in a burning ghetto in Detroit or Newark.) George was asleep with his mouth wide open, but Allen was staring. Then I saw my mother glance past the pickup. Allen became suddenly busy with the glove compartment.
Whatever the cost, after the times in the past, she would never again let my father expose her to ridicule. She descended the steps, walked around the side of the truck, climbed into the passenger seat and pulled the door shut.
My father glanced up at me through his watery glasses. I smiled as best I could. Then he looked away, into the orchard where he had always talked of building a greenhouse and once even sent away for a seed catalogue, from whose pages he copied the names of exotic flowers kept by the young widows who miraculously found romance in his books.
Once on the Turnpike, I occasionally sat up from reading about the Crimean war to wave at the dark blue Plymouth among midweek traffic. (I'd told George and Allen about our trip, so they could pack extra sandwiches.) George was awake and driving. Allen waved back.
Dain had been with us since reaching the highway. Up in the gray sky, he looked terribly thin as he peered down, judging the souls of people in cars and busses. He focussed on a woman alone in a new Mustang. She was chewing her nails. He shook his head, whooshing through the sky at forty-five miles per hour, like a stand-in for the burly St. Christopher our housekeeper, Angelica, had made me kiss before climbing into the truck's bed.
He nodded down at the woman in the Mustang. "She's thinking about someone she loves who doesn't love her. She thinks it's all her fault. People like blame sometimes. It makes them important."
"What if it is her fault?" I asked, though I didn't actually have to speak.
His head cocked back on his spindly neck: "You think you killed me the time we were wrestling."
"Don't play dumb."
"I didn't mean to."
He rolled his eyes and sighed. "You just didn't know what death was. It's not your fault mother and father are screwed up. That's the way kids always think. It's stupid."
"I don't think that."
His arms still crossed, he stared west through the loping phone lines. The road jarred beneath my sleeping bag and I felt foolish for having to remain so close to the earth. "Angelica loves you and Charlie wishes you were his son. Parents are convenient but you can get all that stuff yourself — all the affection you need — so you don't really have that much to complain about."
My heart ached, looking up at angry clouds and gulls gliding miles and miles from the sea, but I made myself glare at him. I knew he knew about Angelica, about how she'd touched me that morning. I demanded, "That's all?"
He uncrossed his arms, pulling on one sallow ear. There was a single pink band-aid on the inside of his elbow. He smiled. "Untie the suitcases."
"He'll have to blame you anyway. And you know they're going to come off in this wind no matter how slowly he drives."
It was true. As my mother had predicted, the two bottom cases were bouncing steadily back over the edge of the plywood.
"I could warn him."
"He won't let anybody touch them. That would be admitting he was wrong. You can wait until there aren't any cars behind. You could save a life. It's going to be a mess one way or the other." He glanced at the cases and shrugged. "Course, it always is."
Realizing I was too afraid to give in, his eyes sharpened. "Just remember. I never got to fall in love or have sex or anything. Not even like Angelica touching you through your pajamas. Maybe it's not that great but it would have been nice to find out for myself." (I said nothing.) "Look. You want to be haunted, it's your business. I'm dead, you know. I've got all the goddamn time in the world."
Then he was gone. It wasn't worth his trouble if you didn't have the sense to see things his way.
And later, after that very afternoon, he would not reappear for twenty-five years. It required a quarter century to make clear, in the sadness, in the abject heart of a child, that my divided existence was intolerable.
But I digress.
Whatever the root cause, my life was suddenly unfounded — despite its coding into distinct personas and wardrobes, despite even a city that seemed conceived to protect me. For I lived in Buffalo not only for the comfort of my half brother's family, but because it is a city incapable of bitterness. I lived there for the knee-jerk cheerfulness of a town that has been battered around the ears for decades, and still rolls over on its back to greet you, tongue and tail wagging, like an ugly dog. It is a city where a neighbor will invite you over with the wife and kids, armed with tuppered tuna casserole and the latest Schwarzenegger video, all upon the grand occasion of installing a new smoke alarm. It is a city that turned out twenty thousand people, on a sub-freezing weekday, carrying banners, flags, and yellow ribbons, stopping downtown traffic and business to welcome home a team that had lost the Super Bowl. It is a city where even during the longest, coldest, darkest night of Time and Being's godless desolation, the value of a good snow shovel is beyond dispute.
And knowing that such people were my co-citoyens, I could go on for weeks working alone in my study. Content to sip weak tea as I look out on my backyard, where the white iron lawn chairs emerge through the snow only a few inches — thin crescents of lacy shadow on the white — imagining I am the benefactor of some ghostly Eskimo garden party, letting my prerecorded cheer answer the phone.
And when I do finally grow tired of my own childish voice on paper, I need not curl up in darkness, or invoke my dead brother. Here I simply call William. And in his house scattered with Legos and Lincoln Logs, scribbled coloring books and soda-stained math homework, I eat my fill of pork roast with sausages and sauerkraut, cornbread and pink lemonade from his wife Cindi's native Buffalo cuisine. On these evenings, while Rachel and Isaac make faces between the French's mustard and the corncob salt shaker, I am reaffirmed in my purpose. I touch, with avuncular affection, the downy heads of my constituents, feel drawn back from the arctic, and am rearmed to write the good write.
Excerpted from Marginalia by Doran Larson. Copyright © 1997 Doran Larson. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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