#tobyreads: No Culture Icons



After reading an excellent interview with the author by Sarah McCarry, I ended up picking up Imogen Binnie’s novel Nevada. Which very much felt like the kind of novel I needed to read at a particular point in time: it’s the kind of seemingly effortless novel that, upon further examination, turns out to be very precisely crafted; it’s also heartfelt, cynical, and ambiguous in all the right ways. It’s the story of Maria, a trans woman living in New York City and working at a large bookstore in downtown Manhattan. (The Strand seems to be the model for the shop in question.) After breaking up with her girlfriend, Maria ends up embarking on a road trip; if you’ve noticed the title, you can probably figure out where things end up.

Maria herself is an involving central character, a sharp observer who isn’t without flaws of her own. When, in the novel’s second half, we’re given an extended look at Maria from another character’s perspective, it’s fascinating to see how her self-image differs from how others perceive her. And, as Binnie puts it in her interview with McCarry, Maria’s “got the theory but she doesn’t have the practice.” It’s the sort of nuanced line that this novel excels at. And, as someone who grew up on punk rock in the northeast, Maria’s nods to the Bouncing Souls and various other bands from this particular corner of the world also resonated. It’s a novel about failed and flawed relationships, identity, the allure of the open road, punk rock ethics, and undermining oneself; it’s funny, smart, and disarming. Highly recommended.

Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division came complete with a blurb by Victor LaValle, which is never a bad thing. Describing it is going to be a little harder: narrator City is an irreverent teenager who becomes a social media celebrity when he calls out various people during a variation on a spelling bee. Not long after that, he begins reading a book called Long Division, in which he encounters a different version of himself in 1985. Timelines converge, history is rewritten, and the two versions of City must confront certain truths about themselves and the people around them. The irreverence, balance between humor and emotional horror, and layered narratives brought to mind Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds — albeit set in the South and with an acute awareness of racial and sexual politics. It’s a dizzying read, and I’m eager to see where Laymon’s fiction goes from here. (His debut essay collection is out now, and I suspect I’ll be picking it up in the coming weeks.)

Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon’s Nothing is itself a taut novel, zeroing in on three characters in a suitably apocalyptic setting — Montana amidst wildfires. A young man named James has come to town seeking information on his long-deceased father; there, he encounters Ruth, a detached young woman whose fraught friendship with Bridget ranges from the heartfelt to the wrenching. The three characters at this novel’s heart are each deeply damaged for their own reasons; that James is living a transient life while carrying large stacks of cash, and either doesn’t know that this is a bad idea or doesn’t care, should be an indication that he may not be the most stable of figures. Cauchon establishes distinctive narrative voices for Ruth and James, finding the rationalizations that allow the most irrational of actions. It’s a novel that leaves you suspecting from the opening page that its ending will not be a happy one, and yet the flawed humanity of its central characters will likely prompt more than a few wishes that this will not come to pass.

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