What a pleasure it is to read a novel that is highly original, clearly written and full of memorable situations and observations. The Beautiful Dead End, by Clint Hutzulak, Anvil Press, $14.95, 202 pages, ISBN: 1895636396), in its first pages appears to be just another novel about lowlifes. Stace, a drunk, a druggie, and a murderer has an encounter in a parking lot, on a cold prairie evening, with a prostitute named Tanya who just happens to be taking reading lessons from his ex-girlfriend, Lillis Rae.
Stace has been away for a number of years and desperately wants to see Lillis Rae again. They go back to Tanya's motel room where Stace injects something evil and appears to die. No loss to anyone. Tanya and a friend, Wes, decide to get rid of the body. I was getting my lecture ready about drunks and druggies only being interesting to other drunks and druggies when suddenly, on page 40 something extraordinarily audacious, and truly imaginative happens. I'm not going to tell you what it is for it would spoil the surprise. What happens to Stace over the next 48 hours is part Twilight Zone, part ghost story, part a glimpse into hell. Mark Jarman has accurately described the story as "barbed wire noir." The language is clipped and precise, easy to read, full of frightening images¨a family of smallpox victims stand watch over the valley where they once lived, "The faces of all four covered in large open sores." The cover is thoroughly unattractive and will not cause readers to pick up the book, there is also no reason to make comprehension difficult, the use of quotation marks would have simplified problems with what is spoken and what is not. Still, this is an astonishing debut, powerful, scary, sexual, existential in scope. Hutzulak is a writer to watch, and possibly to fear.
Donovan's Station, by Robin McGrath (Killick Press, $16.95, 193 pages, ISBN: 1894294424), opens about 1914 with 84-year-old Keziah Donovan on her deathbed, having suffered a stroke. Though physically impaired her mind is active and as she waits for death she relives her life in flashbacks. You will have gathered by now that this is not an upbeat novel. Keziah has had a tough life as a pioneer in Newfoundland. Her loveless first marriage to a shoemaker named Patrick Alyward, produced three daughters. After his death she met a Mr. Donovan and lived happily with him until his death. What is surprising is that Keziah Donovan was a real person and there are photographs of her and her family included in the "novel". Family histories are virtually never interesting and this one is no exception. McGrath concentrates on the harshness of life in Newfoundland in the 1800s, and the cruelties perpetrated on both humans and beasts: the suffering caused to human hands and feet by exposure to salt water and the elements, tying the tails of two cats together and tossing them over a clothesline. In a novel about a dying old woman, one cannot help but think of Hagar Shipley and The Stone Angel. There is no comparison, Donovan's life is never extraordinary, while neither she nor McGrath are very good storytellers, the whole concept is in great need of more invention and character development.
13, by Mary-Lou Zeitoun (Porcupine's Quill, $14.95, 142 pages, ISBN: 0889842329), is another story of a teenage girl. This one is written with panache, and though it covers much of the same ground as the plethora of female coming of age novels this year, the character is recognizable as kind of 1980s Everygirl who finds her family, her school, her teachers, her community, and boys in general, all unbearable.
The prose is economical, the language concise, the depictions right on. The only person she admires is John Lennon. She hates her poor mother for chiding her about being negative, which she is with a vengeance. "Mom would get mad at Anne Frank for being scared of the Nazis. She would think Anne Frank was being ŠNegative'. She is rightfully upset that her music teacher won't let her play the drums because drums are not for girls. With girls like Marnie a parent can only hope they manage to stay alive until they develop some common sense. Not that all Marnie's hatreds are unfounded; there is a smarmy teacher who likes to photograph his female students in various states of undress. The story begins and ends with Marnie at 18 and it appears she has survived her tumultuous pubescence and has indeed developed some perspective on the world, and though she has pretty much things her way, a little bit of common sense. An uncanny depiction of teenage angst.
W. P. Kinsella recently placed 7th of 98 competitors at the National Scrabble Championships in San Diego.