Welcome back, readers. Blogging has been light this month while I prepare my Two Natures galleys for submission to book review journals. If you are a reviewer and would like an advance reading copy (Kindle edition), email me.
I’ve read more good books this spring than I’ve had time to blog about individually, so in the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some roundups of books-in-brief, grouped around various themes.
If you want to scare your teenagers away from alcohol and drugs, Gil Fagiani’s new poetry collection Logos (Guernica Editions, 2016) and Eve Tushnet’s debut novel Amends (CreateSpace, 2015) present a brutally honest and unglamorous look at addiction and the difficulties of recovery. And they’re much funnier, and better-written, than any PSA.
Logos is a collection of persona poems set at a heroin treatment center of that name, in the South Bronx in the 1960s. It comes out of Fagiani’s own experience, first as an inpatient there, and later as a social worker at a Bronx psychiatric hospital and the director of a rehab center in Brooklyn. The desperation of addiction has a way of levelling distinctions between races, classes, and professional backgrounds. The first-person narrator of some of these poems, presumably a stand-in for the poet’s younger self, stepped off the privileged path of a military college cadet to do anti-poverty activism in Spanish Harlem, where he got caught up in the drug culture. But his delusional, hand-to-mouth life is no different from the teen prostitutes and con men who are rooting through the same garbage cans for the dregs of liquor bottles. In this poetry collection, Fagiani expresses gratitude for the program that turned his life around, while showing that its zero-tolerance methods condemned some other residents to fall back into deadly habits.
“Logos” is a traditional term for the Godhead in Christian theology, based on the description of Jesus as the divine Word in the Gospel of John. However, the only god in evidence for most of the poor souls in this treatment center is the director, nicknamed “The Great Him”, who justifies his humiliating punishment regime on the grounds that addicts are all manipulative, self-centered liars who need to be tough-loved into submission. As Fagiani notes in the introduction, Logos was a peer-led community inspired by Chuck Dederich’s Synanon, which used confrontational “encounter sessions” to “strip down a person’s defense mechanisms to uncover the real person.”
Tushnet’s Amends takes aim at this very notion that the self is some nugget of sincerity we can excavate from the dross of social performance, rather than something we construct–and reveal to ourselves–in the act of choosing which personae to perform. In troubling our moralistic judgments about surface and depth, and in the humane values underpinning her aphoristic wit, she shows herself to be an aesthetic heir to Oscar Wilde.
The premise of Amends is pure 21st-century but its concerns are as old as the Garden of Eden. A half-dozen alcoholics from all walks of life are selected for a reality-TV show set in a residential rehab clinic. When healing and repentance become co-opted into the postmodern performance of identity, is transformative grace still possible? Sometimes, incredibly, it is, but not always, and not in a fashion that anyone associated with the show could control or predict.
Tushnet, a popular blogger on Catholic sexual ethics, is (for the most part) an equal-opportunity satirist. The Christian doubletalk of crisis pregnancy centers, pretentious queer theater, and aging Young Turk neo-conservative columnists are all grist for her mill. Her indictment of our society is sharp, yet love can still break through our egotistic illusions, as in the poignant, redemptive “bromance” between Gair, a celibate gay Christian athlete, and Dylan, his straight frat-boy best friend, whose drunken antics become less adorable as he ages.
In my opinion, the only flaw in this hilarious and heartbreaking novel is the character Sharptooth, a whiny young woman who identifies as a wolf. She is depicted rather two-dimentionally with all of the insulting stereotypes typically leveled at fringe identities–basically, a phony who wants to call attention to herself because strange identities are trendy and allow you to win power struggles by calling the other person an oppressor. However, “otherkin” is a real identity category that some people sincerely believe applies to them, a fact that most of Tushnet’s readers probably don’t know. To me it seemed like “punching-down” humor to mock a group of people who rarely have any positive representation to counter this depiction. Whatever you think of otherkin, I felt some vicarious shame whenever she came onstage, because trauma survivors and genderqueer people are often silenced with the same caricature that we just want to be treated like special snowflakes. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book. Read it for the jokes, stay for the grace.