Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Tucumcari: A Book Review

As fiction readers, we have certain expectations when it comes to a novel. We expect conflict; we expect a plot; we expect well-developed, sympathetic characters; and we expect a build-up to a satisfying ending, which often brings some kind of redemption or at least ties up the various threads of the story. Just on a basic level, this is what we expect we’ll find, but that’s not saying that’s what we should find.

True, novels that defy those expectations are taking a big risk. Such novels run the risk of being called boring or pointless or navel-gazing. They run the risk of ending up on many “did-not-finish” piles. But, then again, it’s the novels that take these big risks that have the potential to be the most intriguing, the most surprising, and the most rewarding. That’s definitely the case with Patrick Park’s novel, Tucumcari (KERNPUNKT PRESS).

It’s hard to describe exactly what Tucumcari is beyond saying that it’s wholly engaging. Is it a roadless and buddy-less buddy-road trip book? Is it a story really more about the past than it is about the present or future? Is it a story that’s taking place at all or only in our unnamed protagonist’s troubled mind? What is truth and what is fabrication? To what extent can we trust the narrator of the tale? These and others are all intriguing questions that the novel raises. And, like with the best novels, the symbolic possibilities of what exactly this story represents are seemingly endless.

None of this is surprising considering that KERNPUNKT PRESS describes their aesthetic as follows on their website: “We enjoy symbolism, non-traditional plots, unique characters, taboo, and experimentation.  We like challenging.  In short, we value art over entertainment.”

Tucumcari begins with the protagonist waking to the realization that he has a wife or at least, “I should say I remember believing I have a wife. Why this occurs to me after so long is a mystery” (1).  From the jump, the narration already establishes that we can’t necessarily believe everything the narrator tells us. Does he have a wife or does he believe he has a wife and, like in life, is what we believe actually more of a truth for us than what is fact?

The narrator lives in a neighborhood that, if we are to believe him, is comprised entirely of men. Additionally, an endless precipitation of ash falls from the sky, coming from the town’s windowless factories. Our narrator tells us that he teaches English as a second language, and his students are largely made up of people who work in the factories. The significance of the ash and the itinerant workers is never fully explored, but they provide ample fodder for a reader who’d like to go deeper with symbolic interpretation.

As the narrator plans for his road trip to the town of Tucumcari where, in his mind, he will find and reunite with his wife, he decides that he must also take his childhood friend, Boyd Delmarco. They’ve grown apart since childhood (if they were ever truly friends), but the narrator has been a faithful listener to Boyd’s very popular radio show. The narrator tells us that Boyd is no longer on the air because Boyd’s “lungs are turning to glass. The capillaries are crystalizing. The bronchia are turning rigid and transparent. Soon he will be as fragile as a wine goblet. If he falls, his chest will shatter” (25). The narrator attributes this to idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which is a very serious lung disease, but the actual symptoms are scar tissue, not tissue turning to glass. The narration of Tucumcari almost reads like conspiracy theory… with just enough grounding in truth to be believable.

Research. It’s something I found myself doing several times while reading the novel. Of course, doing research sounds tedious but, in the case of Tucumcari, part of its pleasure is the questioning of its very convincing details. So many times I found myself reading and then asking, “I wonder if that’s true?” And then off to Google I’d go.

As the narrator prepares for his road trip, he recalls many memories, especially of his parents. He remembers his father looking up at the sky at a murmuration (giant, flying whorl) of starlings. The father says, “It’s how they fool hawks into thinking they’re all one big bird” (82). This explanation is partly true. Bird experts, instead, hypothesize that the murmuration actually makes it more difficult for a predatory bird to select a single starling to attack. Of course, either explanation could be correct. Is the narrator’s father any less or more correct than the hypothesizing bird experts? Or, again, does what we believe become our own truth… the catalyst, for good or for bad, of our actions?

The narrator remembers that his father was among the soldiers who worked on the atomic bomb. The experience left him with a founded, or perhaps unfounded, paranoia which saw him continuously moving his family from place to place because he “knew enough about radiation to know you were never really safe from it and sitting around in a hole or under a sofa wasn’t going to do much to save your life. His plan, besides trying to avoid places where the bomb might be dropped, was to be ready to outrun the radiation. Which is why we had boxes we never unpacked and why we never bought any furniture. Everything we owned could be put into our station wagon” (90).

So certain was the father that there would eventually be an atomic war that he lived his life acting according to that “truth.” Isn’t this true of all of us in some way? Isn’t that just the subjectivity of truth?

At another point, however, the narrator creates a complete fabrication when he explains that Sandusky, Ohio is sinking and sliding into Lake Erie “at the rate of one inch per year. This doesn’t seem like much, but if you’ve lived in Sandusky for a while, you notice things. You notice that the walk from your house to your mailbox at the curb is much steeper now. You notice that the angle of the sun is different, which makes the light different, which makes sunsets more spectacular, especially in the fall as the days grow shorter. The days seem even shorter because of the sinking and sliding” (98).

The narrator also tells us that President Eisenhower was inspired to invest in our current interstate system by the autobahn in Germany, which is true. In this same section of the book, the narrator says, “The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways also required that one mile in every five must be straight. These straight sections would be used as airstrips in times of war or other emergencies” (105) which is not true.

Again, a blending of fact and fiction that becomes an important component in Tucumcari’s effect on the reader. Did the narrator’s father really help work on the atomic bomb? Is the narrator in sound mental health? What exactly is meant by the book’s anti-climactic, yet mesmerizing ending?

Tucumcari is a book for our times as our own perception of what is fact and what is fiction is tested every day, leading us to causes and quests that, like with the novel’s narrator, might not be causes and quests at all. Tucumcari does not play by the traditional rules of novel-writing, and it is that which makes it all the more intriguing, mysterious and, well… novel.

Finally, Tucumcari exists because a small press took a chance on it. Small presses need more than reviews like this one; they need readers of the review to take the next step, and that's to buy the book. I am going to provide a link to KERNPUNKT's catalog page. If you buy directly from the press, both the author and the press make more money. But, you can (if you insist) find Tucumcari on Amazonopoly too.

Purchase Tucumcari: here

Jeff "Van" Vande Zande is an English professor at Delta College in Michigan. In 2022, Montag Press will publish his dystopian novel, Falling Sky. His latest collection, The Neighborhood Division: Stories, is now out through Whistling Shade Press and available: here.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Scarlet Plague

A novella set in 2073 telling the story of the few survivors (and their descendants) of a pandemic that took place in 2013.

Sound like the work of Cormac McCarthy? Perhaps Ray Bradbury? Maybe Margaret Atwood?

I was surprised to find out instead that a novella with this premise was written by Jack London and published in 1915… a good thirty years before Albert Camus’ The Plague would see publication.

Coming in at under 20,000 words, London’s The Scarlet Plague can be read in a few hours. The actual plot is fairly simple, too. An old man (a rare survivor of “the Scarlet Death” and a former English Professor) recounts to his half-attentive grandsons the onset of the plague and the early years of his survival up until he found other survivors. He speaks too of the world lost to the plague.

The world of 2073 is sparsely populated, and nature thrives without the prevalence of people.

Is the book a dystopia? A utopia? Something in between?

London seems to suggest that as long as there are people, there will be no utopia. Our very nature seems to thrust us toward dystopia.

It’s part of what makes this novella kind of fascinating. Why exactly did London write the book? What’s his point?

It would be a great book to teach and discuss.

In terms of plot, very little happens in the present of the story. The bulk of the book is the old man, Professor James Howard Smith, talking about the past. His nearly-feral grandsons listen while they also tend to their goats, cook mussels and crabs, and scheme dreamily for more power within the structure of their tribe.

Power. Progress. It's what London suggests got humankind to the point that a mass killing via plague was even possible.

One can’t help but wonder if what London is implying is that the world is much better off without humankind. Even as they eat crab, Smith says to the boys, “But there weren’t many crabs in those days. They were fished out, and they were great delicacies […] And now crabs are accessible the whole year around.”

Smith is an interesting character, too. He seems to lament the world that the plague took away, but his lamentation is akin to a Gone with the Wind kind of feeling… as though he laments a corrupt world that really never should have been.

He speaks of a woman, Vesta Van Warden, “the perfect flower of generations of the highest culture this planet has ever produced.” She’s rich, married to the President of the Board of Industrial Magnates. Her world is a world of servants and, even Smith admits that in the pre-plague years, Vesta wouldn’t have lowered herself to speak to him.

Smith talks about how Vesta survived the plague only to be enslaved by her chauffeur in the post-plague years. Smith weeps for her, but seems to miss the irony in the fact that in the pre-plague years, her chauffeur was essentially her slave and treated no better.

I was told that in his novel, Martin Eden, London makes his titular character anti-socialist. He wanted readers to see Martin as flawed for his anti-socialist beliefs, but readers largely missed it, leaving London to lament to Upton Sinclair, “I must have bungled it, for not a single reviewer has discovered it."

I wonder if London intended also that Smith be a flawed narrator, mourning a lost world that in hindsight hardly merited mourning.

I often think about that… about our 2021 world… and wonder, “What if we are doing this all wrong? What if we have been, almost from the jump?”

I think we are, but I digress.

The contradictions in Smith’s lament are the beauty of the book. It really would make for excellent discussion in a book club or classroom.

Even as Smith goes on and on about the lost world, his grandson Hare-Lip makes the astute comment, “What a gabble the old geezer makes.” It's all so much words, and the boys can hardly believe that their grandfather's "profession" used to consist of standing in front of a room making words about other people's words. Smith even realizes that his highly specialized skills in literature have left him nearly useless now that the world has pushed humankind to exist much lower on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

And Smith, too, has moments where he doesn’t so much lament the lost world of his youth as he does the lost nature of humanity.

Looking at his grandsons, whom he considers “savages”, he says, “The human race is doomed to sink back farther and farther into the primitive night ere again it begins its bloody climb upward to civilization. When we increase and feel the lack of room, we will proceed to kill one another.”

That statement alone holds out little hope for humankind. Interestingly, considering that Jack London is celebrated as a pioneer in what would become science fiction, his sentiments are echoed in the sci-fi classic Terminator 2: Judgment Day when Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a reprogrammed terminator, explains to a young John Connor about humankind, “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.”

How I leapt from The Scarlet Plague to Terminator 2, I’m not certain. But I’m letting it stand. 

The delete key will see no action this day. As Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises, “No bulls would die today” or, in this case, “no bullshit would die today.”

I quit drinking ten weeks ago, so I don’t know where this is coming from.

In short, The Scarlet Plague is a fascinating and quick read. I would highly recommend reading it closely before or after reading London’s The Iron Heel, which I discuss: here.

Jeff "Van" Vande Zande is an English professor at Delta College in Michigan. In 2022, Montag Press will publish his dystopian novel, Falling Sky. His latest collection, The Neighborhood Division: Stories, is now out through Whistling Shade Press and available: here.

Friday, June 25, 2021

The Field is White: A Book Review

The sole convert of a young Mormon missionary in Sweden dies. John, the missionary, ends up snowbound with the estranged daughter and wife of the deceased as John attempts to make arrangements for what will be a paltry funeral for Emil, a man both large and small in his significance. Confined by cold and an ongoing blizzard, the people populating The Field is White face memories, regrets, revelations, and quiet longings.

This novel, written by Claire Akebrand and published by KERNPUNKT Press, is a slow burn of a read with complicated characters, an atmospheric style, and a tragic sense of what can happen when we, inevitably, invite others into our lives.

The publishers explain on their website that the point of the press “is to discover the heart of unique literature and art,” and they’ve done just that with The Field is White. It’s the kind of book that might only find its champion in a small press as, sadly, the bigger publishers are driven more and more by concerns of plots, profits, and platforms.

More and more, what we will refer to as important literature will be released from small presses, as the large presses operate like what we have seen in the growingly risk-adverse Hollywood.

And the advocating small presses will need our support in the way of word-of-mouth marketing and sales. It's what I'm trying to do with each book review.

I adored reading The Field is White. If you’re looking for a page-turning plot, you will not find it here; although, even with its languid meandering, I found myself turning pages fairly quickly. I was drawn into the book for the best reason of all… because the characters felt real, lifted from life to reveal themselves to the reader as each deal with what we all deal with – the compromises and small passions that comprise the bulk of our living.

The fact that this slow burn ends in an inevitable and tragic conflagration of events is all the more surprising and satisfying. It very closely mirrors life and its tendency to relegate us to the mundane to the point that we forget that tragedy is only a poor choice or two away from invading our existence.

In an interview on Big Other, Jesi Buell, chief editor and steward of KERNPUNKT, said, “We are less concerned with plot and more concerned with phrasing and creativity.” That aspect of KERNPUNKT’s publishing philosophy shines through in The Field is White. 

Read the full interview with Buell: here

And another interview: here

While reading, I must have dog-eared over 25 different pages for possible quotes to include in my review.


It’s an overused word in book reviews, but I use it in earnest when I say that Akebrand’s language and turn of phrase is quite stunning.

In an early scene, the missionary looks out the window:

“John watches the landscape disappear under a clumsier one of snow. Under the snow, things become caricatures, their shapes exaggerated and blown up. The backyard, more like a giant’s yard. The pond—not even an indentation where it had been. The dog’s prints already unmade.”

As someone from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where winter can start in October and sometimes end in May, I very much felt the accuracy of the above passage.

In an interview, Hemingway once reportedly said, “I want to write like Cezanne paints.” Hemingway may have wanted to do it, but Akebrand often does it, seemingly effortlessly.

In the following passage, she describes an impressionistic memory John has of he and his brother walking as young boys:

“They heard a gravel sound in the distance. A cloud of dirt rose on the road before the car became visible. It passed them. A girl and a poodle in the backseat looked out of the window at the two brothers squinting in the noon heat. Her eyes clung to them as if they were phantoms walking down an endless road. George and John coughed at the dirt cloud the car was leaving behind. John covered his eyes from the violent sun. A deep sunburn was beginning to flower across his cheeks.”

And just as much as her words can move like brush strokes, they can also produce profound philosophy: 

“When you are born, you splash into a sea of time. Time is a calm sea when you are a child. It begins to knock you about like rapids sooner or later. Old age feels like a swamp. We all drown in time eventually. No one can survive too much time.

People say that one runs out of time. But time gets into one’s lungs like water.”

Recently, I had an editor tell me that all similes must be expunged. Absolutes like that have always troubled me. Look at this simile of Akebrand’s to describe the distant sound of howling coyotes:

“Coyotes screeched in the distance over the hills and they sounded like thirty children wailing for home.”

Camping on Michigan’s Pigeon River while fly fishing, I have often been woken by the howling of coyotes, and I can’t think of a better way to describe their haywire racket.

The Field is White is a masterful book. You should purchase it for its use of language alone. You should purchase it directly from KERNPUNKT’s site to cut out the middleman that is the greedy Amazonopoly.

Get it: here

But, if you must, get it: here

In short, just get it.

Jeff "Van" Vande Zande is an English professor at Delta College in Michigan. His latest collection, The Neighborhood Division: Stories, is now out through Whistling Shade Press and available: here.

Friday, June 18, 2021

The Iron Heel: The First Dystopian Novel

When I was a young teen, I devoured Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and White Fang. For a time, as I’m sure is true of many young people, I was fascinated with wolves. Then, I moved on to “bigger” books, wrongly assuming that London was a YA author of sorts. I’m sure both of the aforementioned books could use another read on my part to fully appreciate the deeper themes, especially about nature and domestication, that London was exploring.

When I started my research into dystopias, I assumed that We was the first dystopian novel (more of my history with dystopias: here). What a surprise to learn that not only was the first dystopia published more than 15 years before We, but it was written by Jack London.

Turns out, I didn’t know much about London. I didn’t know about the extremely early death from alcohol, nor did I know about the socialist leanings.

I certainly didn’t know he’d written the first dystopia, kind of like discovering that Twain wrote the extremely dark book, The Mysterious Stranger (but, given the hellscape of loss which was Twain’s personal life, the sentiments in TMS make sense).

Hearing that Jack London wrote what’s considered the first dystopia was akin to hearing something like Robert Frost actually wrote what’s considered the first Beat poetry.

It just doesn’t fit in my mind, but there it is… The Iron Heel with Jack London’s name on the cover.

What a wild ride this book is. It’s really inspired as well as experimental in form. It makes me wonder who London was inspired by (considering one of the best-known—and maybe overrated—dystopias, 1984, was inspired by The Iron Heel… and We… and Brave New World).

The Iron Heel reads, as I’m sure was intended, like history. It’s protagonist is Avis Everhard (another experiment for London as he is writing from a woman’s POV). As we read, we discover that we are reading the Everhard Manuscript. We are told this by a historian of sorts from some 700 years in the future, when the world is more of a Utopia. We also hear from this historian throughout the novel in the form of detailed footnotes, which is both experimental but also a real trick in world-building.

London is essentially creating two histories. The Everhard Manuscript details the early days of the rise of the Iron Heel, an oligarchy that takes power on the heels of capitalism. The “manuscript” (or the novel we are reading, which isn’t a novel but a historical document) details from 1912 to 1918 and the events surrounding Avis’ transformation from privileged daughter of a professor to revolutionary socialist, under the tutelage of her lover and eventual husband, Ernest Everhard.

The document, we learn, is also a fragment. The novel ends abruptly, and our future historian remarks on how fortunate we are that Avis hid it and kept it from being destroyed, but also how unfortunate we are to not get to have her entire tale. We do learn in a footnote that Avis lived to as long as 1932, so it is unclear why she never finished the manuscript. 

The actual story is quite chilling and feels very much possible. To some extent, I have to wonder if members of the current Republican Party wouldn’t have transitioned seamlessly into the Iron Heel (though I don’t want to digress politically--- but, on that note, London did predict groups like Blackwater, calling them The Mercenaries (a force at the disposal of the Iron Heel, which “evolved” out of the old army).

My copy of The Iron Heel is only 176 pages long, but it’s very dense with information and details… so much so that not all modern readers will dig the pacing of the novel. As I said, it reads very much like a historical document, a journal of sorts… but as it very much should (in the same way that Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” reads like journal entries and is supposed to).

Ernest Everhard’s explanations of the folly of capitalism and the need for socialism, during the first 50 pages of the novel, should be required reading.

Even if I’ve made the novel sound like you’ll be reading a dry history, that’s not entirely true. It is also full of rich, visceral moments. At one point, a massacre is described in which Avis and another man must take refuge under… well, you’ll see:

“Then, what he expected, began. The Mercenaries were killing without quarter. At first, the surge back upon us was crushing, but as the killing continued the pressure was eased. The dead and dying went down and made room. Garthwaite put his mouth to my ear and shouted, but in the frightful din I could not catch what he said. He did not wait. He seized me and threw me down. Next he dragged a dying woman over on top of me, and, with much squeezing and shoving, crawled in beside me and partly over me. A mound of dead and dying began to pile up over us, and over this mound, pawing and moaning, crept those that still survived. But these, too, soon ceased, and a semi-silence settled down, broken by groans and sobs and sounds of strangulation.”

Though too, there are moments of humor, such as when Garthwaite tells Avis that she should rest while he gets them some “grub” with grub being followed by footnote 119.

At the bottom of the page, the footnote simply reads 119-“Food.” A fun little moment on London’s part where he decides that people 700 years in the future would not understand the word “grub”.

I found The Iron Heel to be a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it, especially for those interested in dystopias.

Jeff "Van" Vande Zande is an English professor at Delta College in Michigan. In 2022, Montag Press will publish his dystopian novel, Falling Sky. His dystopian novella, Parable of Weeds, is out through Untreed Reads and available: here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Joy of Creating with Nothing on the Line

I'm sitting here basking in the afterglow of three creative days in a row. 

I didn't write a single word of fiction, poetry, or screenplay during those days.

But, I still managed to be creative... and in the best possible way. I recommend that writers take on a creative task that has nothing to do with writing. It's nothing you're trying to excel at or compete at or become professional at.

Just a creative act.

At the beginning of May, I took a fly fishing trip. The fishing wasn't great, but I remember spotting a fallen tree with a huge burl. As I understand it, if a tree gets injured, it can get a disease that will cause it to grow a burl... think of it as a tumor on the tree... a tumor made of wood.

When I spotted the burl (a big one!) I thought to myself, "When I come back to fish in June, I'm bringing a pruning saw to get that burl. I bet I could make a bowl out of it."

And that's just what I did... I brought a pruning saw with me on the June trip, that is.

(By the way, the fishing was much better... 4 ten-inch brook trout and one twelve-inch brown)

I don't know anything about woodworking. I don't have a lathe. I don't have a band saw. 

I do have some tools, and I ended up using them... a hand-held grinder, a sander, and a drill.

Damn it if I didn't make a bowl!

And, I thoroughly enjoyed the creative process. I think it's super healthy for writers to get away from writing and create in other ways. There's nothing like creating when there's nothing on the line... and maybe that's when we do our best work or at least enjoy the process the most.

Making this bowl, I had nothing on the line. I could throw it away if it didn't turn out. The tools I bought to finish the bowl (mainly sanding and drilling tools) will be used on future household projects. I wasn't entering the bowl in a contest. I wasn't trying to sell it.

Most importantly, I wasn't taking my sense of identity from the bowl-making... something that can happen when we write, putting too much pressure on the act.

I was just creating for the love of creating and bringing something into the world that doesn't yet exist, save for my effort.

I try all the time to remember when writing use to feel that way... just the joy of the creative act.

Too often the creative act gets polluted by impure thoughts: Is this story right for the market? Will it find an audience? Could it land me an agent? Will it get published? 

Maybe I can bring my bowl-making energy to the keyboard next time I try to write. Maybe, if I can get in that zone, I will create my best work... unhindered by the thought of "what will this achieve?"

Or, at the very least, I might truly enjoy the writing more by not worrying about the fate of the writing.

Here are some pics of the bowl from beginning to end.

Jeff "Van" Vande Zande is an English professor at Delta College in Michigan. In 2022, Montag Press will publish his dystopian novel, Falling Sky. His latest collection, The Neighborhood Division: Stories, is now out through Whistling Shade Press and available: here.

Tucumcari: A Book Review

As fiction readers, we have certain expectations when it comes to a novel. We expect conflict; we expect a plot; we expect well-developed, s...