#tobyreads: An Indie Press Quartet

Dennis Cooper isn’t wrong.

There isn’t a lot that I can use to connect the four books up for discussion this week. They’re all released on small presses of distinction (two from the same one, in fact), but that shouldn’t be taken to represent some sort of consistent aesthetic. These books range in style from well-earned realism to a progressively-more-unhinged monologue in the key of John Hawkes. Regardless, quality abounds in these four works: the best of them is one of the freshest, most jarring, most affecting things I’ve read in a while, and all of them merit your attention.

Let’s begin with the one that affected me the most. xTx’s Billie the Bull is short and devastating. I’m reluctant to reveal too much about it, as some of its power comes from the gradual way in which the elements of its story are revealed. Some of them are familiar (the bond between a mother and her children), while others are…not. At times, I found myself thinking of Nathanael West’s ability to achieve evocative effects generally associated with a novel’s length with a much shorter page count. There’s also a visceral quality to some of the descriptions of bodies that show up here that’s not far removed from, say, the work of blurber Dennis Cooper. The end result is utterly stunning, and one of the most original works of fiction I’ve encountered in a while.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler has a similar unpredictability, albeit in a more familiar context. It’s structured as a kind of monologue, one that zeroes in on mortality and can’t quite seem to escape the orbit of one geographic space. It fits pretty firmly in a “man talking in a room” literary tradition: one in which the space being summoned both is and is not a reliable setting for the events to come. And while it didn’t revolutionize the form for me, its mood of obsessive tension impressed.

From the surreal, we move to a more mappable territory — albeit one no less dangerous. Panio Gianopoulos’s A Familiar Beast follows a trip made to the Southeast by Marcus, a man reeling from the bad decision that ended his marriage. He awkwardly reconnects with an old friend, makes plans to go hunting, and haltingly hits on women in bars. One gets the impression that he’s going through the motions of a particular kind of masculinity — one that, though he has no real affinity for, still has the potential to damage lives, both his own and those of others. Gianopoulos has a spot-on talent for diagramming out the delusions that a certain kind of man can tell himself, and he mines plenty of drama from the tense, fraught conversations that abound here. It’s a bleak comedy of manners with violence lurking just below the surface of nearly every encounter.

Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women amasses power from its fragmented structure. It follows its protagonist, Lizzie, through a number of institutions. The style fractures, moving from the first to the third person and back again; sometimes, the vantage point appears immediate, whereas other actions seem regarded from a distance of several years. Given Lizzie’s background in acting and her occasionally frayed manner, I found myself thinking at times that this would make for an interesting literary double bill with Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures — though the two novels are stylistically different, the inner lives of their protagonists have more than a little in common.

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