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By Stephen Ausherman, Ken Hunt

APRIL 26, 1999: 

Nude in Tub: Stories of Quillifarkeag, Maine
by G.K. Wuori (Algonquin, cloth, $18.95)

The press release for Nude in Tub claims G.K. Wuori is "out of nowhere," and his biography confirms that notion. Wuori was born and raised in DeKalb, Ill., famed as the birthplace of barbed wire. He earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy before pursuing a series of unrelated jobs in a string of unknown towns. Eventually, he returned to DeKalb in 1993 and learned that he'd won a Pushcart Prize for fiction in 1976. The belated news apparently boosted his writing career. He was then able to abandon his post as the Director of Admissions at a small state university in the midst of an enrollment crisis. And soon journals all over the country began publishing his work. These stories are now part of a collection that makes up his first book, Nude in Tub.

Set in a town "usually omitted from cheap maps," Nude in Tub is a parade of weirdos said to represent our America. These odd characters could exist anywhere, and perhaps the only reason they're confined to northern Maine is so the harsh climate can further stress their frequent nudity. However, their nudity is just as often figurative--and the least strange of their conditions. These are the kind of people you read about in stray news blurbs that don't exactly qualify as "news"--kind of like the "Odds & Ends" section of this paper. The difference is that Wuori, as an author of fiction, has the license to get inside these people's hearts and brains, and answer that eternal question we all ask when reading such news: "What the hell were they thinking?" His conclusions make sense in a grim sort of way. They are at once humorous and disturbing. Yet he manages to avoid the obvious answers, not so much by any great stretch of the imagination but by piecing them into the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. As a result, the "news value" in the story seems of little importance in the larger context of the community.

Think Thornton Wilder narrating an episode of Cops. So what was Quitno Bléd thinking when he sidearmed a live grenade through a plate glass window at McDonald's? As his story unfolds, the question doesn't seem as urgent as "his need for smelly women and strong food."

The Price of Doing Business in Mexico
by Bobby Byrd (Cinco Puntos Press, paper, $12.95)

Despite what the title may lead you to believe, this is not a book about NAFTA. It's a volume of poems which comprehend the Southwest, Latin America and humanity's relation to nature and culture in keenly observant and utterly haunting ways.

Like Walt Whitman (although without the verbosity), author Bobby Byrd uses himself and his life experiences as vehicles for the expression of the transcendent. He relates tales of his drunkenness, episodes of misery and his reaction to being a famous poet in El Paso. Surreal characters drift in and out of most of the poems, such as a woman whose bug-encrusted legs make her a fashion icon, Dante and his buddy Virgil, and a man named Art in America. God and Jesus drop in as often as best friends; in "Poets Have Few Things To Say," God is a woman married to a black trucker from Milwaukee. Byrd has a knack for dramatic monologue as well; the title poem is an abrupt and startling detective story, while "Tury the Fag was Here" ranks up there with the work of Ai.

The death of his mother in 1997 casts a long shadow over the book. The first poem to address the subject is "The phone rings in 6 a.m. darkness," which blends a glancing acceptance of her imminent death with a strange dream about a man eating a bad hamburger, and progresses towards the trio of poems concluding the book, which are as short as they are deeply heartbreaking. Death and illness inform many of the poems in between--a sister diagnosed with an ovarian "tumor the size of a grapefruit, and in the surrounding flesh a garden of cancerous cells," a son so badly burned he requires a skin graft, a brother dead for mysterious reasons. He casts an eye toward the suffering endured by Mexican immigrants and border residents, such as Adolfo Rodriguez in "The United States of America," and Esequiel Hernandez, Jr., the teenage shepherd killed by U.S. Marines outside of Redford, Texas, in "The Rules of Engagement, 1997." The horrors of Central American civil wars factor in as well. "Guatemala 1991" is a gruesome laundry list of crimes committed against campesinos, while "U.S. Dollars in El Salvador" is a much more ethereal account of a war widow who joins the resistance.

With this, his ninth book of poems, Byrd has managed a rare feat--to capture in words the mystery and elusiveness of his adopted land and its inhabitants.

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