Papers In The Wind by Eduardo Sacheri (translated from Spanish by Maya Faye Letham)

Sacheri_PapersintheWindThe 2014 World Cup is almost upon us. Making it the perfect time to pick up a book about soccer – but nothing too technical. Something that taps into the passion of the fans, but doesn’t require that the reader be a fan herself. And, of course, it can’t be all about soccer.  That would be a bit much for someone who has never watched an entire game in her life.

I think I’ve found just the thing.

Eduardo Sacheri’s first novel to be translated into English, The Secret In Their Eyes, was a taut and suspense-filled thriller. His second novel is something completely different.  In Papers In The Wind Sacheri again returns to Buenos Aires, this time to tell the story of four childhood friends. When the youngest of their group, Alejandro “Mono” Raguzzi, dies of cancer his elder brother Fernando and best friends Daniel “Ruso” and Mauricio are devastated but determined to honor his memory.

A few years earlier Mono had used his entire life savings, $300,000.00, to buy a promising young soccer player.  The player never lived up to that initial promise.  And so after Mono’s death the normally level-headed Fernando hatches a scheme  to sell the player and use the money to secure his niece’s, Mono’s daughter’s, financial future. What ensues is a picaresque-style comedy as the three men attempt – through all kinds of harebrained shenanigans – to make a star out of a Striker who is too big and too slow to score a goal.

And hilarity ensues, as they say.  Papers In The Wind is very funny, but it’s also a book with immense heart. That strikes a nice balance, since the overall premise can  seem a bit far-fetched at times.  Eduardo Sacheri is an extremely talented writer whose characters are both perfectly, and imperfectly, drawn.  Their flaws make them real.  And as the story unfolds – both in the present and in flashbacks to Mono’s illness – you find yourself believing in these men. And in their friendship. And, subsequently, in their crusade.

The interactions between the friends, along with a huge cast of supporting characters (at one point a transvestite  wanders into the story, bonds with Fernando and wanders back out again purely for the fun of it), provides a nuanced portrait of friendships between men. Women, with the exception of Mono’s daughter Guadalupe, exist only on the periphery of this masculine microcosm.   The action bounces between present day – with Fernando, Ruso & Mauricio desperately trying to sell the Striker while still grieving the loss of their friend & brother – and flashbacks to Mono’s illness.  In the flashbacks the men bicker and laugh and support each other in ways we’ve been conditioned to expect only from female characters. It’s still a novelty to see this kind of tenderness depicted in men.

Admittedly, where some of that tenderness is directed may seem a little strange to the uninitiated.  Mono has a tendency to wax philosophic on life and fútbol, and his love for the fútbol club Independiente (a.k.a.the Red)*  borders on religious fervor. In one scene Fernando promises his brother that he will make sure that little Guadalupe grows up an Independiente fan, despite the fact that the club’s glory days have long been a thing of the past.

“You don’t have to worry, Mono.”

“About what?”

“She’s going to be an Independiente fan.  The rest of it I don’t know. I mean, about the cups and the mystique, I can’t say for sure. Maybe it comes back, maybe it doesn’t. But we’ll  get her to root for the Red.”

The romance attached to a favorite team or sport might be difficult for non-fans to understand.  Except, caught up in the world of Sacheri’s characters, it isn’t difficult at all.  Moments like the one aboveare incredibly touching.  Fútbol and Independiente become metaphors for something else.  What that something else is: faith, friendship, life, loyalty, tradition… I don’t think it really matters.  The power lies in the attachment. And different readers will take away different things.

Papers in the Wind, and Sacheri, are at their finest in the moments when the main characters are together – the dialogue is a joy to read and the timing is impeccable.  Sometimes Sacheri takes two or three chapters, interspersed between other chapters, to get to the punchline of some joke. Leaving readers giggling along with Mono, Ruso, Fernando & Mauricio like little kids.  And he provides enough twists and surprises throughout to remind his readers that his last book was a thriller. Papers in the Wind, like The Secret In Their Eyes before it, is an extraordinarily well-crafted novel.  Disarmingly entertaining; wonderfully nuanced – it’s clever without showing off. Like a great soccer player, Eduardo Sacheri manages to make what he does on the field appear easy for the fans.

 

Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 59051 642 3

 

*A little background: Independiente was one of the great Argentine fútbol clubs until the 1980’s when a began its slow but steady decline.  Prior to that period Independiente won a number of international titles, had the first fútbol stadium in Latin America and was considered one of Argentina’s premier fútbol clubs. In the 2013-2014 season, after 101 consecutive years as a Division One team, it dropped into second division for the first time in the club’s history.

Beatitude Blog Tour: Interview with Author Larry Closs

My review last week made it pretty obvious how much I loved Beatitude.  So when TNBBC’s The Next Best Book Blog asked if I wanted to take part in a book tour I said yes.  I had the opportunity to ask Larry some questions about his novel, his connection to the Beat generation, and where the hell he got not one, but TWO previously unpublished Ginsberg poems!??  Here’s what I found out…

BSR:  Larry, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.  While I’ve always had an interest in the Beat Generation, it wasn’t until I read Beatitude that I began to see the Beats and their lives as a 20th century heroic epic. They’re so easy to romanticize:  the brilliant writing, the never-ending road trip, the camaraderie between the men. But they also did a lot of damage—to themselves and those around them. There’s a dark side to their story, filled with hubris & tragedy. Can you start by talking about that?

LC:  The Beats are, indeed, very easy to romanticize, but the reality was often otherwise—for them and for many of those associated with them. In contrast to the wide-eyed wonder, ecstasy of experience and laissez-faire liaisons were depression, addiction and loneliness that resulted in seriously damaged souls. Disaster was never far away. Jack Kerouac’s friend Bill Cannastra died at 28 when he leaned out of a subway car, drunk, and struck a pillar as the train pulled of the station. William S. Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in the head during a game of William Tell. Lucien Carr, a friend of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, stabbed David Kammerer to death, allegedly for aggressive, unwanted advances.

Unrequited love was a constant theme of the Beats, in a variety of configurations. Ginsberg was in love with both Kerouac and Neal Cassady, and although he had a sexual relationship with Cassady for years, it was never the romantic ideal he would have preferred. Ginsberg was also in love with Burroughs for a time—unfortunately, not at the same time that Burroughs was in love with him.

Women who traveled in the Beat orbit generally faced much of the same, in addition to particularly contrary expectations. The Beat Generation was basically a Boys’ Club, the members of which welcomed a woman’s open-minded attitude about sex and intimacy but otherwise held her to the restrictive norms of the 1940s and 1950s. Memoirs and autobiographies by Kerouac’s wives and lovers (Joyce Johnson, Joan Haverty, Edie Parker and Helen Weaver) and Cassady’s second wife (Carolyn Cassady) reveal what it was like to love someone who often was and wasn’t there, literally and figuratively.

All of this contributed to the larger-than-life quality that permeates Beat literature. Every great story traffics in extremes—extreme tragedy, extreme joy. The Beats had plenty of both to draw on and their journey is all the more fascinating for their willingness to expose how they did and sometimes didn’t deal with either.

BSR:  Who’s your favorite member of the Beat generation? I noticed that in the novel you (and your characters) focus a lot on Ginsberg, Kerouac and Cassady… but Burroughs only gets passing references. Until the end, that is, when Ginsberg explains him and his writing so beautifully.  I suppose what I really want to ask is:  what are your feelings on Burroughs?

LC:  What attracted me to the Beats was their search for truths in everyday experience. To that end, I find Kerouac and Ginsberg to be the most insightful and transparent. I like Ginsberg a lot but I lean toward Kerouac because, as a writer, I connect more with prose than poetry. So, Kerouac is my favorite.

Like all great literature, the Beats’ work stands on its own, but it is enhanced immensely by even a passing knowledge of their lives, since so much of their lives inspired their best work. Knowing that Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs were great friends, I was intrigued by all three and curious to see how they aligned or differed. I read Burroughs after I’d read Kerouac and Ginsberg and I was taken aback by how utterly opposite his writing seemed. In contract to the frankness, spirituality and hope of Kerouac and Ginsberg, there was defensiveness, horror and doom with a dose of the blackest humor I’d ever encountered.

It took me a long time to realize what Ginsberg says about Burroughs in Beatitude—that it was all just a cover for the same tremendous vulnerability displayed by Kerouac and Ginsberg. The last journal entry he ever wrote says it all: “Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. Love.”

BSR:  Beatitude tells two stories: the history of the Beats (and their relationships to each other) and Jay & Harry’s relationship. How did you make the connection between those two narratives? Did you decide you wanted to write a novel about the Beats—or did you begin with the story of Jay and Harry? Which came first—the chicken or the egg?

LC:  My original idea was to write a novel about two young men who become friends based on their shared fascination with the Beat Generation. Early drafts had very little background about the Beats but I began to realize that not everyone was as familiar with references that I considered general knowledge due to my own interest.

There was a story that recently made headlines, for example, about Jack Kerouac once suggesting to Marlon Brando that he buy the movie rights to On the Road and that the two of them should co-star: Brando as Dean Moriarty, Kerouac as Sal Paradise. That wasn’t news to me—it’s in just about every book about the Beats ever written. At one point, it was in mine. But it was news to most. Likewise, I once mentioned the story of Kerouac writing the first draft of On the Road in three weeks on a 120-foot scroll to someone—a story I was certain everyone knew—and he said he’d never heard it.

So, as Beatitude evolved, I began to include more and more information about the Beats to make it a self-contained, self-explanatory experience. At the same time, as I continued to write, Harry and Jay’s relationship grew more complex, thanks, in part, to the presence of Jay’s girlfriend, Zahra. Reading through the manuscript-in-progress at one point I was suddenly struck by the parallels between the lives of Harry, Jay and Zahra and the lives of Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg. That realization added a whole other layer and took the book in a new direction.

BSR:  I really enjoyed the interview with Ginsberg at the end of the novel. There was something very touching about this man sitting there in an apartment surrounded by photographs and talking about these people he’d loved. How did you research that conversation? Is it complete fabrication on your part or did you cherry pick from existing interviews?

LC:  Anyone who knew Ginsberg well will tell you that he was a man of many dimensions. For me, he always brings to mind the verse from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, one of his favorite poets: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes.” We all contain multitudes, but few are fearless enough to expose all of them. Part of Ginsberg’s genius was to make himself simultaneously vulnerable and unassailable by being completely open about each and every one of his idiosyncrasies. I wanted that to come through in my depiction of him.

I encountered Ginsberg several times and interviewed him once, though the interview was never published. I’ve read as many books about the Beats— collections of letters, interviews and biographies—as books by the Beats. I used all of those as the inspiration for the Ginsberg who appears in Beatitude and to write the interview with him near the end of the book. I did not use quotes from other interviews because that would have required reprint rights and fees. As for the setting, there are, luckily, a lot of photographs of the Beats—many taken by Ginsberg himself—and I studied various photographs of Ginsberg’s apartment to create a plausible fictional version.

BSR:  And those unpublished poems by Ginsberg?  How did they get to be in the book?

LC:  I had a recording of a poetry reading that Ginsberg did at MoMA in 1995, when Beatitude takes place. In the novel, Harry, Jay and Zahra attend the reading, and, to bring the scene to life, I featured excerpts from several of the poems that Ginsberg performed. To clear the rights to the excerpts, I submitted a list to Peter Hale at the Allen Ginsberg Estate. Peter discovered that two of the poems—“Like Other Guys” and “Carl Solomon Dream”—had, surprisingly, never been published (“Like Other Guys” appeared only as a 26-copy broadside). Peter directed me to Ginsberg’s literary agent at The Wylie Agency, and after the rights were sorted out, Wylie offered to let me include the full text of the poems in an Appendix. I was, of course, thrilled that two poems by Allen Ginsberg would be published for the first time in my first novel. For a Beat aficionado, it doesn’t get much better than that.

BSR:  Throughout the book Harry has a problem categorizing his love for Jay—and the fact that it could exist as anything other than romantic. I’m not trying to say that Harry isn’t in love with Jay—he obviously is. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair to say that he loved Jay more than Jay loved him. It’s just a different kind of love—a concept which I think you deal with brilliantly through the course of the novel.

Which made me think:  Those same societal preconceptions could make it very easy to categorize Beatitude as LGBT literature – simply because it deals with romantic love and intense friendships between two men.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

LC:  As its name suggests, Rebel Satori Press, my publisher, focuses on books that explore “revolutionary personal transformation” through inspirational fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Rebel Satori’s specialty imprint, QueerMojo, is home for cutting edge works of particular interest to the LGBT community. Interestingly, the founder of Rebel Satori, Sven Davisson, felt that Beatitude belonged under the Rebel Satori imprint, not QueerMojo.

Since its publication, Beatitude has been reviewed by a multitude of mainstream and LGBT publications, websites and book-related blogs. In one of the very first mainstream reviews, the writer described the book as “gay literature” in the first paragraph. Shortly after, a reviewer on an LGBT book site wrote that she “would probably not label this novel as ‘gay’ if asked.” In your own review, you write that Beatitude “shouldn’t be pigeonholed as any one thing: as a love story; LGBT lit; a memorial to the Beats; a book about NYC. Because it’s all those things and more. There are multiple layers to the story Closs has given us, and it’d be a mistake to allow ourselves to get caught up in just one.”

I didn’t set out to write a “gay novel.” I’m not even sure what makes a novel “gay.” A gay writer? A gay narrator? Two gay characters? Three gay characters? What’s the tipping point? How many gay characters does it take to screw in a…? Is a gay novel about an experience that only an LGBT person can have? Putting prejudice, bigotry and religious nonsense aside, what experience would that be? When Brokeback Mountain came out, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were constantly asked what it felt like to kiss another guy. Ledger was so exasperated by the question that he finally snapped: “It’s kissing a human being. So fucking what!” The point is: Remove gender, sexuality, race, class and nationality from the equation and human experience is universal. I read and relate to plenty of “straight” novels but I’ve never thought of them as such. No one does. They’re just novels.

The three most famous works produced by the Beat Generation writers illustrate the issue: Kerouac’s On the Road generally isn’t considered a gay novel, although it features gay characters and gay sex. Ginsberg’s “Howl” isn’t classified as a gay poem, although there’s plenty of graphic gay imagery and Ginsberg himself was openly gay. Naked Lunch by Burroughs, who was also openly gay, is often categorized as a gay novel—nearly everyone in it is gay—but the novel is more famous (notorious) for its relentless hallucinatory psychosis and that usually trumps the gay label.

Are novels gay by virtue of who writes them or who reads them? It’s like a Zen koan. Two monks observe a flag flapping in the wind. “The flag is moving,” says one. “The wind is moving,” counters the other. Their master overhears them and says, “Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.”

To me, Beatitude is a novel. Like it says right on the cover. But I know that readers will view it through their own preconceptions, which is entirely appropriate, because how preconceptions affect the ability to view things accurately is one of the themes Beatitude explores.

Larry Closs is the author of Beatitude, a novel, and a New Yorker who often wanders far from home. Follow him on his website, FacebookTwitter, YouTube and Instagram (larrycloss). 

Click HERE for the next (and, sadly, the final) stop on the BEATITUDE blog tour.

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When Harry Meets Jay – Beatitude by Larry Closs

Beatitude is one of those books that might just build a cult following.  It contains a love story – but not in the traditional sense. It talks about the Beat generation – but in a new way.  Well written and completely engrossing, this is a novel that refuses categorization.

When Harry meets Jay the two discover that they share an obsession for the Beats. Harry’s recovering from a devastating love affair.  Jay is handsome, interesting and writes poetry.  They become best friends, inseparable, bonding over books and recordings Harry scores through his job as a writer for a popular entertainment magazine.  All is wonderful…and then Harry does what he’s sworn not to do.  He falls in love.  With Jay. Who is straight.  And has a girlfriend.

What happens next is unexpected.  Because that love triangle?  Well, it never gets off the ground.

Harry Charity (in my TOP 10 of best character names EVER!)  narrates Beatitude.  He’s an incredibly vulnerable man, someone you can’t help caring about and rooting for.  He never comes across as needy or whiny about his situation.  And even when he wears his heart on his sleeve and makes mistake after mistake in his friendship with Jay – you still want him to come out of it OK.

Jay is not the bad guy of this story, by the way.  Despite the fact that for a while I believed, along with Harry, that he was throwing out mixed signals. And before you think you know what’s coming next:  Jay’s girlfriend, Zahra, isn’t the bad guy (er, girl) either.   They both come to care for Harry as much as Harry cares for Jay… just in a different way.

The antagonist of Beatitude isn’t a person, it’s a situation.  Dominated by a misconception about what makes a friendship between men.  And that’s where the Beats come in.  These were men defined by their relationships with each other – sometimes  sexual, sometimes not.  But they were always important, essential even, to the individuals creative process and eventual mythos.  Larry Closs uses this history to flesh out the basic concepts of  male love and friendship – in all forms.  The enemy, if there is one, is society’s conventions.  An idea that  falls right in line with the Beats’ message.

Ginsberg even makes a few cameos in the novel (which also contains two of his previously unpublished poems).  There’s a wonderful conversation between him and one to the main characters at the end of the novel. Without giving too much away – I found this encounter touching and lovely.  We visit the aging Ginsberg (vividly drawn) in his apartment.   It’s filled with photographs of friends and fellow Beat artists, most of whom are now dead.  And the reader suddenly gets a sense of what it means to outlive the people you love.

And that’s the heart of Beatitude:  the reminder that love is love, regardless of whether it’s romantic or platonic. Larry Closs weaves together a beautiful and complicated narrative around this idea. He’s created a novel that shouldn’t be pigeonholed as any one thing: as a love story; GLBT lit; a memorial to the Beats; a book about NYC.  Because it’s all those things and more. There are multiple layers to the story Closs has given us, and it’d be a mistake to allow ourselves to get caught up in just one.

Note:  The Next Best Book Blog will be holding a blog tour for Larry Closs’ Beatitude beginning Sunday, January 22nd. BookSexy Review will be hosting Larry for an interview that week.

Publisher: Hulls Cove, Maine. Rebel Satori Press (2011)
ISBN: 978 1 60864 029 4

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Doubles: A First Novel by Nic Brown (advance review copy)

Doubles, a first novel by Nic Brown, may be one of this summer’s best reads.  It contains all the elements guaranteed to drag a reader in:  an intriguing opening; brilliant pacing; quirky characters and strong visuals.  The story of an insular circle of five friends, at its heart is the relationship between two tennis players.  Kaz & Slow have been doubles partners since they were six years old.

Slow Smith is the book’s protagonist and narrator.  In the first chapter (which, by the way, I loved) we learn that he has spent the last five months in what amounts to an emotional fugue state – paralyzed by guilt over the automobile accident which put his wife, Anne, into a coma.  He’s given up tennis and divides his life between a desk job and the hospital.   Every day he takes a Polaroid of Anne, continuing the visual diary she’d started before their marriage. When his old coach shows up to convince him it’s time to play again, Slow is ready for something to happen.  What follows is a strange (and strangely touching) story of family, friendship, betrayal and love.

Which, let’s face it, is pretty cliché.  Films like Garden State and St. Elmo’s Fire have explored these themes before. But while Doubles does cover a lot of the same ground, Brown does it in such a sweet and funny way that it’s hard to stop reading.  Sure there’s a love triangle, but he connects all the points and gives them equal weight.  Not all love is romantic.  No one is entirely good or bad.  And secrets aren’t necessarily meant to be kept secret.  While there are times when it risks crossing into melodrama, Doubles includes flashes of offbeat humor that save the narrative from becoming weighed down by a sense of its own importance.  There were passages that left a huge grin on my face (the same reaction I have to Wes Anderson films).

Brown has created a cast of fully realized characters, any one of whom could carry their own novel.  Manny, Slow & Kaz’s hedonistic coach who always seems to know the right thing to do (regardless of whether or not it seems right in the moment).  His beautiful and troubling wife, Katie.  Anne – who has moments of solidity, but for most of the novel I felt remained an enigma.   Best of all is the friendship between Kaz & Slow, which will warm your heart and then break it over and over again.

If I were to have one complaint about Doubles it would be that the story progresses too quickly, cutting so fast that the reader is on to the next scene before they’ve had a chance to absorb what happened in the last.  This book reads like a movie, complete with visuals that feel like storyboards.  There were times when I wanted more character development, more in-depth probing, more peeks beneath the surface.   Usually I’m the one shouting “where was the editor??”  Here, 227 pages didn’t feel like enough.

Yet in the end I realized it was.  Doubles is perfectly encapsulated in the way of well written short stories (or a good film). There’s something beautifully awkward about Nic Brown’s first novel.  Slow, Kaz and company may be a flawed group, but I found them to be a likable one.  And definitely unforgettable.

Publisher:  Counterpoint Press, California & New York. (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 58 243507 7

Note:  Official release is in July, 2010 – though Amazon seems to have copies available now.

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