north of oxford fiction review

A Bright and Pleading Dagger by Nicole Rivas

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By Charles Rammelkamp

“In those years I still believed in magic,” the schoolgirl narrator of the story “Bulldog” tells us after she has been informed by the boys in the schoolyard “no girls allowed” when she tries to participate in a game of handball. That night she dreams about her transformative powers. The stories in Nicole Rivas’ collection, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, winner of the 2018 Rose Metal Press flash fiction chapbook contest, brim with magic as young women cope with their powerlessness in the face of the abracadabra of love and ambition. So often, the magic lies in the contradictory pull of toughness and tenderness, as if the collision of the opposites creates a spell all its own. Emblematic of these opposing impulses is the image that concludes the story, “The Butcher,” in which the girl protagonist takes on her father’s butcher job. She routinely brings scraps of meat to the feral cats in her neighborhood. “…the cats slip and turn around her calves like warm and eager lovers, ready to strip the butcher of everything she has to offer them.” There is so much violence implicit in this image, yet so much affection.

Or again, take the conclusion of the story, “The Comedienne” (note that Rivas uses the obsolete term to identify a female comic), a story in which a young woman is effectively ostracized from a party after she makes a crude joke; she accidentally breaks her mimosa glass on the handrail going out, getting shards of glass stuck in her palm. Rivas writes about the pieces of glass that Sam, the protagonist, has removed from her hand, “If she arranged them one way, they looked like a dagger. If she arranged them another way, they looked like a halo.” Murderer or angel, sinner or saint?

And yet another example of this DNA-coiling of the yin and the yang, comes at the end of the story, “The Woman on the Bus,” when the narrator observes, “Though you know it’s unwise, you will continue to love and hate him until you can no longer tell the difference between the two.” In this story, the protagonist, “you,” is a young woman on a date with a man who clearly annoys her. Yet when he gets food caught in his throat and she has to perform the Heimlich maneuver to save his life, she speaks to him “in the soothing voice of a mother.” The woman is taken by surprise to hear herself, “the way it leaps out of your throat like a warm blanket.”

In all twelve of the stories that make up A Bright and Pleading Dagger these same contradictions are at play (or war), and the result is magic. “Gretel’s Escape,” which plays on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, may be the most magical of all. In this version of the story, the brother and sister are – surprise! – lost in a deep dark forest and they come upon a ruin. Sound familiar? Only, Gretel discovers a charred hardback (it’s apparently Grimm’s Fairy Tales) in which she reads about her brother and her being duped by a witch in a candy house. The witch tries to eat them, they get away, a lesson is learned, blah blah blah. Gretel’s reaction? “She was tired of being simultaneously lost and bound to fate.”  She tries to ditch her brother, but she’s ultimately resigned to her fate. The story ends: “Gretel exhaled sadly, knowing Hansel would find her again, once upon a time.”  Once upon a time. The love and the resentment are both so nakedly apparent.

Indeed, the fairy tale, with its implicit magic and its didactic moral message is the perfect genre by which to understand Rivas’ flash fictions, except that she turns it on its head: there is no moral; there is no bright distinction between “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “bad.” There is savage and there is compassionate, there is violent and there is kind, but they are never separate, only barely distinguishable.

These are all stories about girls navigating through some bizarre #Metoo world, at once victims and agents of their own fate. The teenage girls in the title story are picked up by some older hillbillies in a truck near Savannah. We don’t know what happens to one of the girls, Jada, who wanders off with one of the men when they park in a field miles from town, except that she’s apparently uninjured, but the unnamed narrator is sitting in the truck with her guy who masturbates while talking to her about scifi thrillers. Gross. Jada meanwhile quits her job and the narrator never sees her again. In the story, “Death of an Ortolan,” the young narrator is drawn into a relationship with Penny, her gynecologist, a woman more than twice her age.  How can this not be exploitative?  But the narrator seems to know what she’s doing.

The magic and the just plain weird aspects of these stories (In “The Staring Contest” a young woman speed dates – and falls in love with – “the oldest man in the world,” who dies sitting across from her) add up to a dark humor that takes the edge off the savage undercurrents, but the sheer menace just around the corner makes these stories extremely potent.  This is a collection you will read straight through.

You can find the book here:

https://rosemetalpress.com/books/a-bright-and-pleading-dagger/

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press.

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Long Day, Counting Tomorrow by Jim Feast

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By Thaddeus Rutkowski

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Jim Feast’s new novel, Long Day, Counting Tomorrow (Unbearables Books/Autonomedia), is basically a murder mystery, told in brief, nonsequential chapters identified by date. Set during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the fall of 1998, the story follows Raskin Trask, a former drug user (and Wall Streeter) who is undergoing treatment for the virus. Though Rask is not gay, he gets involved in the politics of gay rights—demonstrating, for example, with the group ACT UP. At a crucial point, Rask suspects something is up with the doctor who manages the treatment in a hospice for a AIDS patients. When Rask’s roommate dies of questionable causes, Rask realizes he could be next. He works to get evidence that will implicate the doctor in charge.

Around this storyline, the author (who wrote the book with the editorial assistance of Carol Wierzbicki) brings in a number of other characters, some more important than others. Rask is a member of a downtown New York group called the Neo Phobes, and many of his fellow phobes cross paths and socialize with him. One of the more interesting of these people is the radio personality Mac, who works at the station WPHEW. Mac is described this way:

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There was something about his libido, something that both got him into bad fixes (like the one-nighter that cost him his marriage) and into some of the most indefinably sweet moments of his existence. … More than once, he’d met someone at a party and, locked in the toilet, used the shag rug for … shagging.

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This description of Mac reminds us that there was a time—in the ’90s—when urban youths didn’t think much about risky behavior or the need for recovery from such behavior. It was OK to “wang chung” all night.

Elsewhere, Feast brings us deep into the world of AIDs treatment centers. Here, Rask meets his new roommate in the infirmary, Yardley Chu:

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Five or six bodies—not people, department store dummies—were grouped around one of the beds. … Rask went to the covered shape on the bed to introduce himself, but then stopped in surprise, jerking his head to the left. What he took to be Chu was a seventh dummy, prone on the bed. His new roommate sat beyond the bed in a wheelchair. Hanging over the back of his chair was a minor poet Rask had seen hanging around Mac.

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At first, I took this scene as an example of surrealism, without a realistic corollary. Why would mannequins be set up in and around a hospital bed? It seemed a metaphorical comment on the impersonal nature of hospitals. There is no flesh and blood here. The live person is “beyond the bed,” in a wheelchair. Then, on second thought, I saw the situation as Yardley Chu’s attempt to physically hide from those in power, from the staffers who can—and will—do him in.

There are a number of subplots in this novel—having to do with drug dealing, corporate spying, file stealing—that add to the atmosphere of shadowy doings and hidden motivations. To say that all is explained by the end might be an overstatement. Long Day, after all, is only the second installment in the Neo Phobe Trilogy (the first volume is titled Neo Phobe). The forthcoming third volume promises to provide more excitement, more details, and more answers.

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You can find the book here: https://www.akpress.org/long-day-counting-tomorrow.html?___SID=U

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Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of five books of prose. Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

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