Reviews by Nick Sweeney

Cataract City by Craig Davidson
Graywolf Press - forthcoming July 2014
ISBN: 978-1-55597-674-3

The Search by Geoff Dyer
Graywolf Press - May 2014
ISBN: 978-1-55597-678-1

Let Go and Go On and On by Tim Kinsella
Curbside Splendor - April 2014
ISBN: 978-1940430010

With his most recent novel, Cataract City, Craig Davidson not only dives headfirst into the deep end of thriller fiction, but perfects it while showing the dedication and skill needed to jump in the first place. The story of two young boys who separate over time is one that many readers are familiar with. The plot is reminiscent of Dennis Lehane's Mystic River with the completely engrossing first act, or at least begins to head down that road, and then, when you least expect it, crams some Frank Bill down your throat.

The reader may focus in on the similarities immediately, but we are simply being played with; the closer you look at the story, the more original it becomes. The plot allows us to see the complexity of Owen Stuckey and Duncan Digs; they begin to sway toward their expected destinies: Owen is supposed to get out of town, Duncan is supposed to stay, but they are both dragged elsewhere along the way. They stumble, fall, and get lost as they go down their own roads, and Davidson is there to carefully construct and describe the results.

This novel isn't just about what Owen and Duncan do in Cataract City (also known as Niagara Falls) but what the city itself does to the characters. While it has been previously noted that plot and character are managed with a well-focused balance, the setting acts as the third ball in this juggling act. The city grows and groans, it acts as an adversary to the two: it holds onto Owen and sucks him in while never allowing Duncan to gain any footing to progress. One is tempting, the other teasing. It is with this focus and this see-saw between the futures of these two young men that the novel truly shines.

The focus on the details in this immense plot sticks out like a black eye at Sunday Mass. From the opening chapter, through the building of the individual futures of Duncan and Owen, to the well-deserved and carefully written finale, we are never rushed along, never waiting for something to happen. With each scene, Davidson goes as deep as possible, whether it is about the complexities of dog racing, or the unique smells of working in a cookie factory.

The supporting cast jumps on the page, highlighting many details: Edwina adds depth to both of the boys in a way that doesn't come across like the catalyst of teenage love affairs; Bruiser Mahoney, the idolized wrestler, acts as the catalyst for the two boys' friendship and anchors it; and the pervert-like Sam Bovine contributes part comic relief and part immoral compass. Every city has its characters and Cataract City should be proud of its own. With every crack in the city's sidewalk, readers find something new to hold onto and remember.

To say that Davidson has a gem here would be too simple and too far off. It would imply that he has reached the apex of his writing and ability to weave stories together; it would be as if he stumbled across a great story. Luckily for the readers, we have instead found a mine of polished stones and jewels, of many shapes, sizes, and uses, a mine that seems endless. You may get stuck in Cataract City for some time, perhaps longer than expected, but I tell you now that there aren't a lot of places like it, and I promise you it is well worth the trip.

Sometimes, taking a journey for the sake of the journey is worth it. Geoff Dyer's The Search, recently released by Graywolf Press, not only reminds us of this but also digs deeper into understanding its importance. This noir-inspired story plays with type and expectations and has a subtle message about storytelling, one that makes this book enjoyable far after putting it down.

A man with a neglected skill set is approached by a woman in need. Her husband is lost; on the run for all the wrong reasons. Sound familiar? It should. Dyer uses this as a vehicle. It's not so much about Walker, our modern day Lancelot, or Rachel, the seductive woman in need, or even the mysterious Malory who serves as the destination of the plot; it's about the reader's progression from point A to point B.

Early in the novel, Dyer's shows us his intended message:

"The fact that here and there reality and representation corresponded was entirely coincidental. It took Walker a long time to accept this: so entrenched was his faith in the integrity of maps that his first reaction was to assume that the map was right and the city somehow wrong. The whole point about a map was that it was a more or less accurate representation of reality."

Replace maps with stories or novels and this is the statement Dyer ultimately makes. In retrospect, there is good reason to compare Dyer to Calvino: readers travel from city to city, exposed to places like Despond, Meridian, and Friendship, countless hotels and miles of highway, and are reminiscent to the many locales in Invisible Cities.

Walker, like Dyer, seems to be living in the now of the story, focusing on the immediacy of the world around him and his reactions accordingly. The precision used to focus on Walker's actions and reactions is remarkable, given the long progression of narrative and the short overall length of The Search. What Dyer has done, and what we have found again, is a story that serves as a reminder of what stories should feel like. It could be said that Walker is simply our protagonist, that he is our "hard-boiled knight" as the book describes, but it is also quite possible that Walker is, in fact, the reader, looking back on the journey in reflection. At times, this is a risk, and at other times it is a reward.

The many layers of this short novel have various results. The surface plot may not be what a reader would expect (for better or worse) but the underlying gears that Dyer uses for a grander scheme will bump into the reader at the most unexpected times.

Sometimes, we need to be reminded of why we started traveling in the first place. Sometimes we need to find what was once lost and explore old maps for new paths.

Laurie Bird is a name you may not know. She was always in the background, always the third wheel in a movie or a shadow to an artist. She faded away as quickly as she lit up the silver screen, committing suicide at a young age. Tim Kinsella, in his second novel titled Let Go and Go On and On, will not let her sink into Hollywood obscurity and forces the reader to see the powerful downward spin of depression and a dream unrealized.

This slim novel acts as a chronology of the life of a woman who survived from film to film, sometimes even within them. Laurie Bird only acted in three, but it is her company that elevated her into the public's view. She was always featured alongside someone else and never the star. In Two-Lane Blacktop, she served as the literal third wheel between men destined to go on a cross-country race; in Cockfighter she acted as a girlfriend who watched her lover gamble her away in a far-reaching dream, and she had a fleeting role in Annie Hall as Paul Simon's girlfriend. Her film characters became the story of her reality; she was always in transit, always someone else's girl, always just a name. It is with this angle that Kinsella elevates Laurie. In the novel, she becomes the focal point, the center of observation and action and the reader cannot ignore it. This is remembrance at its finest.

The use of second person narration may be jarring to many but it is the only truly effective way to approach this biographical novel. Anything else would have been a trope-filled attempt of romanticizing the tragic scarlet character we know too well. It throws the reader into the story in a way few have. Kinsella makes every effort to make it genuine, and succeeds early and often. In addition, the structure of the novel is reminiscent of quick cuts from films, and adds to the narration. The countless half-page scenes serve as quick photographs of a train wreck in motion and are best described here:

"But sometimes you swore you saw specifics; that crumbling barn looks like it can't remain balanced, that dried up creek, that skeleton of a gas station logo. But you could never know. You would've seen everything coming from the other direction before."

This novel is a heartfelt tribute to an actress who struggled against the crashing waves of reality around her. This is life among the stars and the bright lights and this story will not be forgotten, it will not be bootlegged like old VCR copies of Two-Lane Blacktop. By delving deeper into her life through photographs and films, Kinsella shows us that this is no ordinary train wreck in progress that we feel drawn to watch; this is us riding the train itself just moments before impact. Let Go and Go On and On is a truly outstanding novel and serves as a reminder of "The Girl" that should never be forgotten.