Briefly Noted

A monthly book review in brief from the staff of Prairie Schooner.

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Volume 1, Issue 2. July 2012

Wheeler on Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich | Dawes on Sadie Jones’ The Outcast | Lipscomb on Rachel Maddow’s Drift | Orsi on Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!!

Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer. The Third Reich. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Reviewed by Theodore Wheeler

One of Bolaño’s early novels (written in 1989 and found among his papers after his death), The Third Reich is a dark and sinister mystery that follows a quartet of Germans vacationing in Costa Brava, a small town in coastal Spain. One of them, Udo Berger, a champion of war strategy games, obsesses non-stop over tactics that could have won World War II for Germany. He designs strategies for one of these games called Third Reich. All notion of Nazism is conspicuously absent in Udo’s narration. Yet, while the word is removed from his idiom, the concept remains implicit. As their vacation descends into violence, tragedy, bizarre all-night drinking sprees with local toughs—the Wolf and the Lamb, and a burn-victim named El Quemado—Udo keeps his focus on Third Reich, staying in his hotel room with the war as he imagines it. After one of their fellow German vacationers disappears while swimming drunk in the sea, and Udo challenges El Quemado to a round of Third Reich, the game becomes real for Udo. El Quemado’s scorched and scarred body takes on clear symbolic weight while they reengineer battles and calculate casualties in bombed cities. Playing Third Reich, El Quemado is “able to look at himself and not see anything” or see “only the tortured Europe of the game board.” Or so Udo thinks. Although The Third Reich is not quite in the stratosphere of Bolaño’s 2666 or The Savage Detectives, it is still an engrossing and noteworthy work. It’s easy to see in these pages a great writer getting his feet underneath him as he ruminates on the ways people confront the lingering presence of Nazism and makes masterful use of the grotesque to overlay European social, political, and martial culture.

Sadie Jones. The Outcast. Harper, 2008.

Reviewed by Kwame Dawes

There is an old-fashioned conventionality to how Sadie Jones handles point of view in her first novel, The Outcast. It is an omniscient third person voice that employs a shifting limited point of view. One never imagines an omniscient narrator in control of plot, manipulating the fate of her characters. Instead these characters are allowed to see the world from their limited and flawed perspectives, and the grow, suffer, stumble into the complexities of abuse, psychosis, drunkenness, wounded ness, and intense affection and love in a manner that leads us to think that the author is at the mercy of their whims. This is a great trick for a novelist with an unquestionable command of character and plot to bring off. It is a beautiful, moving, painful novel, and the end, even if somewhat optimistic, is a hard one. We cannot begrudge the willingness of the author to let hope sing. Lewis, the central character, and the erstwhile outcast of the title, journeys through ten grim years from age nine to nineteen. By the time this is over we realize that we are watching a middle class’s neighborhood of posh British society crumble and then find its way though its hypocrisies, desperate need for stoic survival, and fears over the same period. Beginning at the close of the second World War, the novel reminds us of just how wounded British society was after the sacrifices and losses of the war. Lewis’ mother, his stepmother, his father, his neighbors the Carmichaels, and his seedier world of escape in London, are all vividly captured as profoundly wounded and broken individuals. Lewis’ character is a sophisticated study of mental instability and trauma at a time of sexual awakening and uncertainty. There are moments when we do question just how believable the motivations of some of the characters are, but these are rare moments in an otherwise beautifully written work of fiction. That Lewis loses his mother too young, and that he is unable to find comfort or protection after the trauma of witnessing her death from his father or his stepmother, is the obvious praxis of the story’s tragic unfolding. But Jones is so good at entering the head of her male protagonist and teasing out the nuances of his struggles that what results is a fine and sophisticated work of fiction.

Rachel Maddow. Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. Crown, 2012.

Reviewed by Robert Lipscomb

Something spectral haunts the pages of Rachel Maddow’s Drift: the Unmooring of American Military Power. Ghosts of conflicts past inhabit the book’s pages, offering a kind of mystery, a whodunit with a worrisome solution—we all did it. As thoroughly researched as Drift proves to be, not every rhetorical move is effective. Maddow frequently (and ineffectively) invokes the Founding Fathers, even though she would be one of the first to admit that such anachronistic appeals inherently fail to offer solutions to present circumstances. Nevertheless, she presciently leads the reader down an excavated pathway of seemingly minor events, deftly avoiding the hullabaloo surrounding so many of the familiar ones. For my money, the most effective is the chapter on the Reagan-ordered invasion of Granada. To Maddow’s humanist credit, the comedy of errors surrounding the rescue of several American non-hostages from the Caribbean Island is not allowed to obscure the needless deaths resulting from the invasion—-deaths that include American service members. Her lucid and efficient recounting of the Iran-Contra affair and the emergence of CIA as a fifth branch of the military are chilling. Indeed, a secondary thesis emerges through Maddow’s analysis: apparently, Americans are prone to respond to fear with a kind of neo-Freudian Complacency Drive: let someone else take care of it and keep me safe. Yet, this very underlying thesis might just undermine the book’s whole proposition, as the points she offers to confront the monstrous specter of a reckless and unconstrained industrial military complex requires an active citizenry, one that is inherently not complacent. While Maddow’s ultimate optimism may be hobbled by her own analysis, she inaugurates a conversation worthy of being both heard and joined.

Sara Levine. Treasure Island!!! Europa Editions, 2011.

Reviewed by Claire Harlan Orsi

Think “20-something slacker”-—the image that springs to mind is male, right? While every successive Judd Apatow movie cements the male slacker archetype ever further in our cultural imagination, his female counterpart might as well be listed along with the Giant Panda as a near-extinct species. Thankfully, however, we have Sara Levine’s debut novel to bring the female slacker back from the brink.

The unnamed protagonist of Treasure Island!!! is a recent college graduate who can’t keep a job, a boyfriend or a home, complains about everything and everyone and seems hell-bent on ruining the lives of the innocent. Amid her general indecision she finds not salvation but reinforcement from an increasing obsession with Stevenson’s classic, which prompts her to treat her life as an adventure marked by the four virtues of boldness, independence, resolution and horn-blowing.

The novel is brief but consistently hilarious, deploying comic elements as varied as the pet parrot that recites infomercial slogans instead of the language of buccaneers to the sexual farce of the protagonist’s sister’s relationship with their middle school principal. Like many comic novels, the surface casualness of Levine’s narration belies the concentrated deliberation of well-honed prose. Sentences like, “I lay on the sofa and gloomed” pack a compact punch that can only be achieved through a poet’s attention to form.

Levine should be commended for not succumbing to an easy “epiphany” for her unlikeable protagonist; instead, the slacker stays bad right to the end, though one senses a subtle shift that may end up forcing the character to finally rethink her life. Though the narrator’s relationship to the ur-Treasure Island could have been explored with a little more depth, this charming novel is successful on many fronts, the perfect choice for a swashbuckling beach read.


Kwame Dawes is the Glenna Luschei Editor-in-Chief of Prairie Schooner. His recent books include Wheels, Back of Mount Peace, and Bivouac. He was recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. …Robert Lipscomb is a PhD student in literary studies at UNL and an Editorial Assistant for Prairie Schooner. …Claire Harlan Orsi is the Blog and Social Networking Editor for Prairie Schooner. Her stories and essays have appeared in the Cincinnati Review, MAYDAY, and The Believer. …Theodore Wheeler’s fiction recently appeared in the Kenyon Review, Boulevard, Confrontation, and the Cincinnati Review. He lives in Omaha with his wife and their two daughters, and is Web Editor for Prairie Schooner.

(Co-edited by Theodore Wheeler and Claire Harlan Orsi.)