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Austin Chronicle Book Reviews

AUGUST 2, 1999: 

30: Pieces of a Novel by Stephen Dixon (Henry Holt and Company), $30 hard

30: Pieces of a Novel is Stephen Dixon's latest novel about Gould Bookbinder, the kind of character the publicists call an "everyman." Bookbinder is like a modern-day Walter Mitty -- the mundane triggers reverie, ordinary conversation becomes a quixotic rave that is both appealing and nerve-wracking at the same time.

The appeal is pure Dixon. Twice nominated for the National Book Award and extremely prolific, Dixon is known for fiction that turns the inside out. Much of 30 is propelled by the haphazard tangents of Bookbinder's mind. Bookbinder is a writer with a sharp tongue, disarming sexual frankness, nervous disposition, and sentimental attachment to family. And unlike Walter Mitty, he is haunted by guilt -- about being a bad husband, bad father, and bad son. He sees his aging mother only a few times a year: "Now, still seated by the phone, he feels terrible about her, knows he'll feel this way after every phone talk with her the next two months, wonders what she thought soon after she hung up and why she didn't, as she usually did, say the final good-bye right after his." Also, his wife is chronically ill and his daughters demand a lot of his time, so he loses patience, has "temper tantrums," and then feels worse, "wondering what's going through the minds of both kids about him, if they fear he'll blow up completely and never come back to normal and then everything will be gone." 30 is a surprisingly domestic novel, chronicling the life of a man in relationship to his family. Bookbinder's professional life only serves to redefine his relationships with loved ones. In this way, Dixon creates an honest portrait of a man's personal life that is both painful and funny.

What is disturbing is that this novel is 672 pages long and reads more like related short stories. Granted, 30 is subtitled "pieces of a novel," so there is an obvious play on it as an unfinished work. The subtitle also hints at Bookbinder's inconclusive, unheroic life. But this seems superficial in the end. Why these 30 pieces together? They read better as independent stories than as an articulated novel. Bookbinder's intensity doesn't change from the beginning of the novel to the end, nor does the progression of stories reveal anything new. As such, it is a flat read. Individually, however, while a few of the stories seem self-congratulatory and repetitive, many of them are remarkably moving. -- Lissa Richardson

Shy Girl by Elizabeth Stark (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), $22 hard

Alta, the tough, womanizing girl-hero of Elizabeth Stark's novel Shy Girl, is a fictional descendant of the kind of stone-hearted tough guy played by Humphrey Bogart in the movies. Brusque and unreachable, she tosses women aside after one night, all the time nursing a sore spot where she was hurt by the One That Got Away. Alta, however, is a thoroughly Nineties version of the hard-boiled romantic: a butch lesbian living in San Francisco who fucks her way through the seemingly endless sea of nubile young things who cross her path. But this love 'em-and-leave 'em heroine is crying inside, secretly pining for her teen love, a girl nicknamed Shy, who mysteriously ran away when Alta was 17. When the novel opens six years have passed and Shy's mother is dying, so Alta summons her old flame. Now pregnant and as elusive as ever, Shy drifts back into Alta's life, reawakening her desire and her wounds. Love hurts, or so they say.

Stark's San Francisco is a circus of girls in leather and vinyl and vintage, baby-T's and nipple rings. The young inhabitants, in all their variety -- pierced, tattooed, femme, butch, lipsticked, crewcutted -- are intoxicated by the freedom and seemingly limitless carnal possibilities of their world. Alta, a body piercer, zips around on her Harley through a kind of fantasy girl world, where conversations consist entirely of sexual innuendo, and couplings and uncouplings occur with an ease that brings to mind Erica Jong's Zipless Fuck. Stark's achievement in bringing this city of girls (there are no male characters) to life is the novel's strongest element, and her San Francisco remains vastly more interesting than her human characters.

Alta, rejected by her narrow-minded Catholic mother and fiercely proud of her invulnerability to the love of anyone but Shy, isn't particularly likable or believable. Her sexual conquests read like a Playboy fantasy of how women pick each other up, and since Alta is neither exceptionally good-looking, charming, nor kind, we have to believe that her extraordinary sex appeal lies wholly in her swaggering unavailability. Trolling for girls is the only thing that seems to help Alta's bad case of hurt feelings. What she wants from Shy, who remains ghostly and inscrutable, is never really clear, and the plot gets soggy, bogged down in repetitive, self-revelatory conversations between the two characters. Despite the injection of a little mystery as the two women uncover Shy's mother's secret past, the narrative seems to be mostly a framework for Stark to explore the twin themes of identity and memory, which are Alta's and the novel's obsession. Unfortunately, the author's overwrought imagery can't rescue the characters from those murky swamps of self-pity and self-absorption in which they're drowning. -- Sara Powers

Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health by Elena Avila (J.P. Tarcher/Putnam), $24.95 hard

With Woman Who Glows in the Dark, Elena Avila, a Chicana with a degree in psychiatric nursing, has created a witty and insightful autobiography chronicling the events leading up to her becoming a curandera, a Mexican folk healer. In a simple, intimate manner, Avila describes the ordeal of reconciling her Western medical training with the folk healing she grew up with and how she eventually established a practice as a full-time curandera.

In her quest to learn more about Mexican folk healing, Avila describes an experience she had in Mexico that gives a hint to some of the hardships she would face: "A friend and I planned to attend a ceremony for the Virgin of Guadalupe, and decided to drive all the way to Mexico from Albuquerque. When we stopped for a break in a small town in northern Mexico ... a bird shit all over my head. I turned to my friend and said jokingly, 'I hope this is not an omen.' Little did I know what lay ahead."

Avila then filled many pages with case studies of clients she helped for maladies such as "envidia," "susto," and "mal ojo," conditions she quotes one researcher as saying are "folk disorders" that are "unique to Mexican Americans and do not affect Anglo Americans." It took Avila courage to write this book; she bares her soul about her doubts and the challenges of a calling that still carries so much stigma (especially with Hispanics) and puts to paper a practitioner's account of this traditional healing modality with roots in the Aztec culture. Indeed, Avila doesn't include any of the ancient prayers in Woman Who Glows in the Dark because they are still "kept secret." But in this book, Avila shatters myths about curanderismo and reminds us that it's just as important today as it was centuries ago. -- Mary Jane Garza

National Outdoor Leadership School's Wilderness Guide by Mark Harvey (Fireside Books), $15 paper

The outdoor manuals I grew up reading emphasized techniques for engineering one's immediate environment. Enterprising campers were encouraged to build drainage moats around their tents, to notch trees when trailblazing and, come evening, to hack down a few evergreen limbs to make a fragrant, comfortable, and disposable mat on which to sleep. Such techniques, as Mark Harvey points out in the new National Outdoor Leadership School's Wilderness Guide, are anathema to the thoroughly modern trekker. Harvey uses the guide, an update of the 1983 original, to preach the gospel of "Leave No Trace" -- a doctrine that emphasizes moving through the great outdoors with minimal impact on the environment. He discusses the importance of durable surfaces for new campsites and "sacrifice" areas in established ones, illustrates how to build and later disassemble a low-impact fire mound, and emphasizes the fragility of wilderness river ecologies. Obviously, The Wilderness Guide is a work with an agenda. (Not to mention a marketing angle: The book is replete with plugs for the Lander, Wyoming's National Outdoor Leadership School, or "NOLS.")

Still, it's a laudable agenda, and it never obscures the author's excitement and expertise in teaching the nuts and bolts of hiking and camping in the uplands of the Western United States. The book covers more ground than your average infantry company on a forced march, ranging from discussions of footwear, packs, tents, and sleeping bags through techniques for traversing difficult terrain to how to deal with bear attacks. Throw in an excellent introduction to reading topographical maps and several tips dealing with that most contemporary of wilderness experiences, the helicopter rescue, and you have what is quite possibly the mountain backpacker's single best sourcebook. -- Bruce McCandless

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