Reviews of the first 50 pages of recent books by local authors
The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time. I haven’t read Steven Sherrill’s 2000 debut novel, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. But this sequel (John F. Blair, 262 pp., $26.95) tempts me to check it out: The rich yet charming premise is that the bull-headed humanoid of Greek myth survives into the present, only to make his living as a Civil War re-enactor in small-town central Pennsylvania. “M” speaks little, mostly “Unngh” when resigned, weary or displeased, and “Mmmnn” in approval. His world is a tragicomic one, with Sherrill’s humor ranging from understatedly ironic to merrily crude. But Sherrill (a professor at Penn State Altoona) poignantly builds on M’s relationships with characters including the immigrant Indian family that houses him, and fellow historical re-enactors including the companionable Widow Fisk. A chief pleasure is Sherrill’s genuinely lyrical writing. M, he writes at one point, “finds himself dwelling peacefully at the crumbling edge of a particular history, finds himself in a faux soldier’s uniform on a make-believe battleground, fighting enemies that never die.”
Dead Boys. “I don’t know when a life becomes a symbol — when it is that a boy goes from a living person to a figure in someone else’s story,” writes Adriana E. Ramirez in this short memoir (Little A, 49 pp., $1.99 on Kindle). Ramirez grew up, variously, in Texas border towns, Mexico and Colombia. Her thoughts about how people are changed by the experience of violent death begin with an account of her older brother’s accidental death, in 1989. These seven incisive essays by the educator and Pittsburgh Poetry Slam founder also include: ruminations on executed boys hung from a Mexican highway overpass, seen via pirated video; the story of a childhood trek with a cousin to see a dead body on a Colombian beach; how her family discussed the killing of a Colombian boy by loan sharks he’d borrowed from to escape military service; and what happens when, years later, Ramirez finds that boy’s mother, now living in Florida. “I am told that in cases of extreme violence, it is better to turn away from the blood-matted skulls and broken bodies,” Ramirez writes. To her credit, she never does.
The Silent Treatment. Steve Hallock’s debut novel concerns a middle-aged newspaper photographer named Grant Baker, who suddenly stops speaking. Given that Hallock himself is a former newspaperman (and now director of Point Park University’s School of Communication graduate-studies program), it’s no surprise that the narrative reads like reportage about a fictional world that closely resembles our own. Grant’s malady (if malady it is) can’t help suggesting a contemporary suburban take on Melville’s Bartleby the scrivener, the man who, for reason unexplained, would simply “prefer not to.” The Silent Treatment (The Artists’ Orchard, 302 pp., $16.95) offers many reasons for Grant’s condition, from marital woes to despair about the world. But chapter-heading epigrams, by the likes of Gandhi and Emerson, point in a more philosophical direction. And Hallock’s dry, even blandly observational approach manages to somehow render the familiar strange, and to make everyone Grant encounters answer for him- or herself in subtly provocative ways.