- Writers Retreat
- Writers in School
- OUR SUPPORTERS
Dear Fellow Bookaholics,
I love reading. I love critical thought. But sometimes I hate reviews. We review writers have a tendency to stray into over-used words and phrases like “thrilling,” “tantalizing,” “electric,” “a real page-turner,” “a delightful romp.” Every time I read the word “romp” in a review, I throw up a little in my mouth.
And every time I sit at my desk to write a review, I feel like my head has been tipped and emptied of brains. With a wet schlock, the benumbed interior of my skull is served instead with a single cheery exclamation point. In these times of failing book stores and urgent self-promotion, review writing does not so much encourage honesty as a safely beaten retreat into cliché.
Here’s the thing: I write reviews because I love reading good books. I know that most writers think reviewers are full of it, and use us anyway for the publicity. I know that I am frequently ambivalent about review writing—who am I to say what’s good or not?—but I do it for the chance to get my hands on a freshly printed, unread book; its spine a firm, languid convex, the pages sharp with the lingering smell of paper and ink, all mystery and potential within. We could call this mutuality.
I write reviews because I very earnestly believe that the literary arts have the potential to influence the shrink or rise of human consciousness. In the near absence of sustained oral traditions, written works now intimately reveal to us the possibilities, lessons, and challenging perspectives of people and places that we’d otherwise have slim chance to know. Literature is a documentation of our values, our flaws, our most strident and/or ridiculous aspirations- and the best literature truly pushes how we think of ourselves, of others, of consciousness and mortality and thinking itself.
Reviewing is a unique opportunity to inspire interest in books otherwise marginalized or passed over. Many of the books that I’ve reviewed are profoundly excellent, novels that shake and shape me, leave me deep in gratitude for the great gift of literary art. And yet these books get little attention in mainstream press. My review is a small holding place in the vast junkyard of media opinion, a little flashing light calling attention: look, something wonderful has happened here.
Review writing goes slow for me. I work through a series of small existential crises: who am I, to write this? What is my intention? Am I promoting a book that I feel is important—culturally, artistically, politically? Am I criticizing a work that you think trips up on some discrepancy in intention, or that fails to challenge or achieve the functioning standards that I hold good books to? Or am I just sharing what it feels like to be a reader, the peculiarity of my own personal experience alone in lamplight with this book, now, today? I parse through all of this, then turn to the mind numbing work of packaging my reading experience into a few quick hitting paragraphs: the inevitable “!”.
Over the last couple of months, several books that I am to review have gathered layers of dust and guilt on my bedside table. I read each in parts, working slowly, unsure of how to approach. Each is a powerful, genre-shaping book, too lyrical, experimental, raw to move through quickly, with one notable exception: Barry Webster’s The Lava in My Bones. This book rose like seemingly fluffy cream to the top, and I read the entire thing in two days, pausing only briefly to complete such simple tasks as raising a child and composing my own novel.
***NOTE TO READERS: The following paragraphs may explicate some of the more surprising details of this novel, although no description could truly capture the ribald experience of reading it oneself. AKA: spoilers ahead.
The Lava in My Bones (Arsenal Pulp Press) is, put simply, a fabulous book. Ridiculous, erotic, and sometimes completely disgusting, Webster never failed to lure me into surrendering the asshole, analytical parts of my brain to his gorgeously unwieldy tale of rock-eating, tectonically restless gay love; failed and recreated families; pubescent honey sweating; forests of monster jizz; and ecstatic, choir-singing sea critters—ending with, the oddest of all, a sharp and sudden turn to the confines and comforts of heterosexual, middle class normalcy, and a happy family to boot.
Here’s the gist of the book: abhorrent, naively stupid and self-absorbed characters go through a 100% bullshit geological journey through gender, form, rock, air, water, and ice for love and self-acceptance. Through literal forests of body secretions and a couple of deaths by drowning, they wind up in the most standard, dull-ass cinematic ending possible, complete with suburbs, liberal guilt, and dinner parties.
And, said summation aside, if you are anything like me, you will completely love this book.
For example: after alternating through the perspectives of Sam, a studious geologist, Frank, his rock-eating lover, and Sue, his honey-sweating high school girl sister (Frank, by the way, literally eats rocks; Sue literally sweats honey), 62 pages of The Lava In My Bones is told from the perspective of Sam and Sue’s mother, a bitter, rigidly religious, and diabolically controlling woman who nonetheless has more fire, brains, and backbone than anyone else in the book. Mother sneaks onto Sam and Sue’s get-away ship with a golden vial of the Virgin Mary’s urine, gifted to her by a miraculous statue on the hill of Sam and Sue’s hometown, Labrador. The vial is accidentally appropriated by the ship’s nursing staff; thus Mother steals all of the urine samples onboard and, in her search for the Holy pee and its attendant ecstatic, homo-reversing effects, proceeds to systematically fling each vial onto unsuspecting passengers. To lubricate her endeavors, Mother poses as a man and renegade friend to her children as she tries (and repeatedly fails) to shower the true piss of the Virgin Mary upon them. Sam, at the time, is a nuthouse-escapee, former-geologist werewolf with a bludgeon-like erection, traversing the sea for his gay ex-lover while wrapped in a few sheets, and Sue is a severely bee-stung buck-naked high school dropout who recently accidentally killed someone with a few swallows of her sweat—which is, curiously, a powerful ambrosiac honey upon which a small town of bully-stinging bees routinely and rapturously feeds. Mother (Father having recently departed this life to live with his mermaid lover) aspires to save her monstrous children’s souls and compel them home. A conveniently placed swordfish leaps from the sea to block the final splash of the Glorious pee, and salmon, starfish, and a nearby whale rise ecstatic with the love of the Lord before the ship cracks and sinks, sucking Mother below the surface to her hideous and lonely death.
And I cried for her.
“Magical,” “compelling,” “electric,” complex, troubling, and contradictory, The Lava In My Bones is a book that I will read repeatedly throughout my life, illuminating crap times and hard knocks with the seismically wild, deeply relevant and earnest irreverence of it all. It may not be a great book, in the asshole, analytical sense, but nonetheless it has duly rewarded me for my review-writing hypocrisy. I am a proud review-writing review-hater who exchanged a bit of his time and tongue for the chance to lay hands and eyeballs on the likes of this book.
And, if you are at all seduced by the ridiculous, hopeful, archetypal, deep-thinking, and revolting, I hope that you get to lay respective sensory appendages on the likes of it, as well.
The Lava in My Bones
By Barry Webster
Arsenal Pulp Press
Paperback, 9781551524795, 304 pp.