While Pittsburgh has many writers, Pittsburgh City Paper, unfortunately, lacks the wherewithal to read everything they write. In this occasional feature, we instead comment on the first 50 pages of some recent works -- the same amount publishers read from hopeful authors.
Please Don't Shoot Anyone Tonight
By Dave Newman, World Parade Books, 218 pages, $10.95
Future cultural anthropologists curious about teenage male working-class life in small-town late-1980s Southwestern PA won't find a funnier, more engaging or more ruefully candid precis than Newman's first novel. Its narrator, Danny, is 17 -- on the edge of an adulthood he can't imagine being much different than his life of drugs and alcohol, crappy jobs and all-too-occasional sex. He shoplifts. His best friend's girlfriend might be pregnant. It's all here -- but what's best is Newman's sure way of capturing his characters' fleeting moments of dignity alongside their repeated failures, their deeper selves alongside their petty resentments. It's dead honest, often painfully so. As Danny says of having sex: "I knew it was exciting. It just didn't feel exciting."
Year of the Gingko
By Sharon Dilworth, Unbound Press (U.K.), 232 pages, £8.99
Dilworth's Caroline is half a classic unreliable narrator. In this darkly comic novel, she's a laid-off Shadyside mother and doctor's wife with a crush on a neighbor's husband. She also has an obsession with gingkos, those evolutionary relics of which, as she notes, only the female trees smell. Caroline's narration shifts, constantly and seamlessly, between stingingly trenchant observation, nasty judgments about others and self-aware fantasizing about a more pleasant life. ("I was in my giddy stage, not yet sick of my own longings.") Dilworth, who teaches at Carnegie Mellon, offers sharp, multi-layered dialogue and a smart critique of the foibles and dreams of the young century's urban middle class.
Keeping the Wolves at Bay
Edited by Sharon Dilworth, Autumn House Press, $24.95
Dilworth the editor offers this anthology of work by 20 emerging American short-story writers, from locally based Autumn House. Several contributors are Pittsburghers. In Jennifer Bannan's darkly comic "Sexy Ida Makes a Vow," a young newlywed can't stop imagining life as a widow -- i.e., her husband's death. ("[S]he doesn't want to rush a family, especially when she's not sure she wants her husband living.") Sherrie Flick's flash fiction "Good Dog" is a beguiling nine-"chapter," 250-word prose poem about a woman's relationship with a puppy, a missing cat (who reappears, "slinky by the dog bowl, picking through the stray kibble like an overweight debutante") and her missing teenage daughter. There's also Casey Taylor's hilarious "Calvary," about a pissed-off mailman, and Jane Bernstein's poignant and funny "Knocked Out." And Oklahoma-based Honoree Fanonne Jeffers offers "All Them Crawfords," a vivid first-person dialect piece ("Ain't no way I woulda let some breath and britches be rollin on top of me and ain't gone feed me and mine"). It reads like gossip and plays out like tragedy. If this five-story sampling is any guide, consider Wolves the last-minute Christmas gift for the fiction fan on your list.
By Bill Deasy, Velluminous Press, 209 pages, $14
It's a sentimental premise, even corny: A dying man's last words (along with interest from a local independent filmmaker) inspires efforts to reunite a short-lived but semi-legendary rock band whose legacy is limited to one concert in their small Pennsylvania town. The former members, now ensconced in middle age, include a Catholic priest, a college administrator, a coffee-shop manager, and the semi-reclusive but seemingly ageless lead singer. This is the third novel for Deasy (the local singer-songwriter who formerly fronted The Gathering Field), and he makes it work. Sure, his narrative voice tends to be prosaic, and the dialogue too. But if his characters say "or something" a lot, they're an engagingly earnest lot, searching for answers and understanding. And if you've ever harbored a youthful dream, the promise of the band's reunion show makes for a thoughtfully pleasing, generally good-humored page-turner.