Nov­els fo­cus on gritty re­al­ism, anger, loss

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Heather Scott Part­ing­ton Part­ing­ton is a writer in Elk Grove, Calif.

Like a Woman

A Novel

De­bra Bus­man

Dzanc: 256 pp., $14.95 pa­per

De­bra Bus­man’s novel, “Like a Woman,” fol­lows Tay­lor, a teenage girl grow­ing up on the streets of L.A. Tay­lor comes from poverty and knows one thing best — how to steal. When life with a drunken union-or­ga­nizer mom be­comes too un­pre­dictable, Tay­lor splits and makes her way by the old­est pro­fes­sion in the world.

Con­tra­dic­tion gives her char­ac­ter com­plex­ity, drawing the reader in: Tay­lor will cut any john who threat­ens her or her girl­friend, but she car­ries lit­er­a­ture on non­vi­o­lence. Tay­lor has a gift for speak­ing to an­i­mals while re­gard­ing most hu­mans with mild dis­trust.

Bus­man shines light into this dark com­ing-of-age tale with al­ter­nat­ing points of view and shifts in chronol­ogy. The only mis­step here is the in­ser­tion of short, murky ru­mi­na­tions on name­less char­ac­ters; th­ese seem an un­nec­es­sary dis­trac­tion from a solid main story. As it un­folds, Bus­man’s nar­ra­tive be­comes less lin­ear and more hon­estly com­pelling. Parts of the trou­bled girl’s life read more like a col­lec­tion of loosely con­nected short sto­ries but art­fully as­sem­bled to earn this abra­sive hero sym­pa­thy. “Like a Woman” is gritty but ten­der: charm­ing in its im­mod­esty

and sinewy as a junk­yard dog.

Mak­ing Nice

Matt Sumell

Henry Holt: 240 pp., $25

Alby, the main char­ac­ter of Matt Sumell’s “Mak­ing Nice,” isn’t a lik­able char­ac­ter. In fact, he’s the kind of pout­ing man-boy who is com­pelling pre­cisely be­cause he can’t seem to get out of any sit­u­a­tion with­out ru­in­ing it. Alby is Holden Caulfield in the In­ter­net age: a cen­tral char­ac­ter un­able to see past his own pain and hell-bent on flam­ing any­one be­fore they can get too close. What’s at the heart of Alby’s rage — and Sumell’s novel — is Alby’s com­plete in­abil­ity to deal with his mother’s death. Alby’s wild ac­tions — punch­ing his sis­ter, “un­pro­tecto-ing” women, pick­ing fights and crit­i­ciz­ing ev­ery type of per­son around him — are re­ally brash stabs of bravado he uses to cover his fear.

“There is a cer­tain clar­ity in vi­o­lence,” Alby tells us early on. And it’s true. The repet­i­tive na­ture of his lash­ing out makes this brash tale both fun to read and one that will stick with the reader for its painful hon­esty. What makes this dis­tinctly voiced, plot-light rant work as a nar­ra­tive is that it ex­ists in con­trast to so many self-in­dul­gent and “brave” grief mem­oirs. Sumell gets closer to the heart of loss than many writ­ers be­cause he uses Alby’s habitual strik­ing out to cover child­like vul­ner­a­bil­ity. “Mak­ing Nice” is a pro­fane, an­gry screed of a novel, but Sumell’s care when wield­ing Alby’s brash voice shows a kind of skill fo­cused on get­ting clos­est to his char­ac­ter’s dis­tress.

Aquar­ium

A Novel

David Vann

At­lantic Monthly: 272 pp., $24

David Vann’s “Aquar­ium” is a novel, but it’s also an art ob­ject. Scat­tered through­out its glossy pages are beau­ti­ful pho­to­graphs of rare fish; it is as much a plea­sure to see and hold as it is to read. The text fo­cuses on the life of Caitlin, a young girl in Seat­tle in the 1990s. Caitlin’s mother works at a bluecol­lar job, and her daugh­ter spends count­less hours at the Seat­tle Aquar­ium af­ter school. It is there that Caitlin meets a friendly old man — not a stranger, as it turns out, but a man who aban­doned Caitlin’s mother when she was a teen. When the stranger re­veals him­self to Caitlin, the sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship and tiny ecosys­tem she shares with her mother dis­solve and de­volve into vi­o­lence. The se­cu­rity they each take for granted is no longer rel­e­vant.

Caitlin’s voice is writ­ten as a nar­ra­tion from the fu­ture, but Vann gives her a sense of pre­teen naivete and fil­ters her lan­guage and metaphors through the twin­kling blue light of the aquar­ium. The novel is di­vided into a dis­tinct be­fore and af­ter: Once her past is re­vealed, Caitlin’s mother loses her grip on re­al­ity and makes her daugh­ter act out the abuse she suf­fered as a child. “Aquar­ium” asks hard ques­tions about for­give­ness and what it means to care for a par­ent or child; the por­tions where Caitlin’s mother makes her daugh­ter reen­act her dif­fi­cult child­hood are tough to read. But Vann forces his reader to ex­am­ine the obli­ga­tion we feel when it comes to fam­ily. Some­times that obli­ga­tion extends to things we’d rather not dis­cuss. Some­times it in­trudes on our self-worth. Vann’s provoca­tive prose is filled with a sense of won­der and beauty, even when the lives he de­scribes are tragic.

At­lantic Monthly

Henry Holt

Dzanc

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