Results of the PEN/Faulkner Award in the year 1998.
The hero of this sensational first novel is an alto sax virtuoso of John Coltrane/Sonny Rollins proportions. He also happens to be a walking, talking, philosophizing, Shakespeare- and Blake-quoting, one-woman-loving bear. The scion of a long line of European circus bears (and the product of an amazing roll of the genetic dice), the Bear, when we first meet him, is eking out a living doing an (ugh) street dancing bear act with his friend and keeper Jones. But what the Bear is really best at besides making himself cosmically miserable is blowing the sax. One day he makes a bold foray out to jam with Arthur Blythe and Lester Bowie at a New York club, thus beginning a musical (and romantic) odyssey. A semi-clandestine gig and a live album. A nightclub bust and long dark nights of the soul in the city’s dankest jail cell. Freedom, a recording contract, a road tour. A vexed, physically passionate interspecies love affair with a beautiful woman named Iris. And finally, a triumphant return to a jazz club inside the Brooklyn Bridge, where the Bear plays a solo that blasts him out of the space/time continuum and all the way back home. Lyrical, funny, wildly original, this is the best novel, ursine or human, on the jazz life in decades.
Gaitskill’s complex, urgent characters struggle with the disparity between what they want and what they know. Longing for emotional connection, they often mistake debasement for passion, manipulation for affection, cruelty for intensity. In “Tiny, Smiling Daddy,” a father suffers his ambivalent love for a daughter who has betrayed him—perhaps justly. In “The Girl on the Plane,” a disillusioned salesman must face his participation in a brutal act he has almost forgotten. In “Kiss and Tell,” a writer seeks revenge on a woman who rejected him, only to find that once he has achieved it, he no longer wants it. In “The Wrong Thing,” a lonely, emotionally injured woman involved in a set of skewed, apparently trivial sexual encounters unexpectedly discovers her own life-giving reserve of humility, gentleness, and compassion.
There’s Rob, Bob, Tom, Paul, Ralph, and Phil; Siegfried, the sculptor in burning steel; blind Albert and ninety-three-year-old Hiram; Foster, the New Age psychoanalyst, and Maxwell, the tropical botanist, who, since returning from the rain forest, has seemed a little screwed up somehow. Donald Antrim assembles them—along with their eighty-nine equally eccentric brothers—in the decaying library of their family estate. Before cocktails are served, Maxwell is cataleptic, Virgil hysterical, and genealogist Doug has made off with doctor Barry’s medicine kit. Supper gives way to indoor football, a conversation with a dog, and ritual sacrifice.
Few first novels garner the kind of powerful praise awarded this epic story that takes place on the dusty, remorseless Oklahoma frontier, where two brothers are deadlocked in a furious rivalry. Fayette is an enterprising schemer hoping to cash in on his brother’s talents as a gunsmith. John, determined not to repeat the crime that forced both families to flee their Kentucky homes, doggedly follows his tenacious brother west, while he watches his own family disintegrate. Wondrously told through the wary eyes of John’s ten-year-old daughter, Mattie, whose gift of premonition proves to be both a blessing and a curse, The Mercy Seat resounds with the rhythms of the Old Testament even as it explores the mysteries of the Native American spirit world. Sharing Faulkner’s understanding of the inescapable pull of family and history, and Cormac McCarthy’s appreciation of the stark beauty of the American wilderness, Rilla Askew imbues this momentous work with her tremendous energy and emotional range. It is an extraordinary novel from a prodigious new talent.
The ordinary seaman is Esteban, a nineteen-year-old veteran of the war in Nicaragua who has come to America with fourteen other men to form the crew of the boat Urus. Docked on a desolate Brooklyn pier, the Urus turns out to be a wreck, the men - without the ability to return to their homes—become its prisoners, and the city of New York is transformed into a mysterious and alluring world they cannot penetrate. Esteban, haunted by his dead lover from the war, eventually gathers the courage to escape from the ship and embarks on a quest for a new life and love in the city. The Ordinary Seaman is both a richly human story of abandonment, loss, betrayal, and the power of love and a modern fable about America’s hidden immigrant culture.