north of oxford fiction review

Big Headed Anna Imagines Herself by Stephanie E. Dickinson

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By g emil reutter

We are introduced to Big Headed Anna at birth. Her child mother, boy bodied suffers in child birth. Her baby’s head so big that Anna’s feet were roped to free her from the womb, upon looking at her the young mother fled. Anna took to a cow when left for dead, survived to go on. Or so it is imagined by Anna.

Dickinson has crafted a series of flash fictions that chart the adventures of Big Headed Anna through time and space, of viewing the living and dead, of the life of an outcast from birth who encounters a wide array of characters. Imagined or real? For many who take the time to read this vivid collection, who have suffered from the cruelty of human kind there will be no doubt that the life of Anna could be real. Dickinson’s use of flash fiction to tell the story is simply brilliant as are the images and metaphor that populate this collection.

From Big-Headed Anna Believes Herself as a Strange, Beautiful Name:

“I am eleven years old today and hungry since I ran away from the other place. If I cut my eyelashes there would be no feeling. I would have to move my ear lobe between the grist’s flint or the tip of my nose to understand about touch. To show you how orchids thrive in snow and spongy soil, an earthworm loses its head and grows another. Tallow, bone flesh. My neck thinks of me as its lily. Wandering toward the French Quarter under talon of moon, I sing in a beautiful whisper. Hush little brittlestar who lives underewater. My big head hides under my bigger hat. I shiver listening to the river, the cotton barges.”

Big Headed Anna suffers the indignity and violence of rape, unable to see her attacker, a bag covering her head. And when she gives birth, her child stolen from her, carried away her only comfort is knowing the child has a normal head. Many of the flash describe her efforts to find her child.

From Big Headed Anna Listens to the Last Sound in the Grass:

“I am braised with malaria and yellow fever, and I sink deeper into the bittersweet. I am haul and lumber. An unmarked grave on Rampart Street where traveling workers make prayers has seen my child alive. A raven brings them bread and flesh. The lost Creole spirits sheltering them on houseboats tell me to lift the tablecloth where oysters are set down with comets.”

Dickenson has weaved these stories together as a master quilter, each strand interwoven, each resulting image full of color and metaphor. The stories take place between 1900 and 1933, a harsh time in America, a harsh time for those who appear a bit different from the majority, a harsh time for the poor during a time of exurbanite wealth and decline. Although dream like in its presentation the supporting characters are developed with words and images reflecting a beauty and realism to this work. Yet like a master quilter, Dickinson has created a body of work in this collection always with an underlying love for its central character.

You can find Big Headed Anna Imagines Herself here: https://www.amazon.com/Big-Headed-Imagines-Herself-Stephanie-Dickinson/dp/108723655X/ref=sr_1_1?qid=1572125064&refinements=p_27%3AStephanie+E+Dickinson&s=books&sr=1-1&text=Stephanie+E+Dickinson

g emil reutter can be found here: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/

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Nobody Move by Philip Elliott

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By Charles Rammelkamp

Philip Elliott’s prizewinning 2018 flash fiction chapbook, Hunger and Hallelujahs, features a junkie mendicant in search of her soul; the sequence ends up in Los Angeles, the city of so many broken dreams. As if picking up where he left off, in his new noir novel, the main character, Eddie Vegas who, as his name suggests, is a small time criminal, is likewise influenced by a hazy idealism that, in his case, leads to his undoing. Criminals need to be ruthless, as Eddie’s buddies, Floyd and Sawyer, remind him, but Eddie is moved by “love” – his love for Dakota, a woman he meets at a strip club.  She’s come to LA to find her long-lost sister.

There’s an almost Sophoclean dynamic at work here, too, because halfway through the novel, we learn that Dakota, the object of Eddie’s devotion is the sister of a woman he murdered in cold blood at the start of the story, a witness who had to be removed, simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Remember how Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother but doesn’t realize it? Eddie is no King Oedipus, but when he understands what has happened he, too, realizes his irredeemable mistake with that agony of self-awareness. All he can do is hope Dakota doesn’t find out, but of course she does.

At the novel’s end, when Eddie is in San Quentin serving a thirty-year sentence for his crimes, we find him in the prison theater group playing the role of Casca in Julius Caesar.  “…those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me….”  In a noir novel featuring unequivocally bad characters all over the place, Eddie’s ambiguity makes this tale more than crime fiction. Of course he’s responsible for all the horrible things he does, but we want to forgive him, if only because his devotion to Dakota seems so pure.

Likewise, where the noir genre never features “good guys” – Nobody Move is full of sketchy, scary, contemptible characters, from Eddie’s small time partners, Floyd and Sawyer, to their sadistic boss, Saul Benedict, the mysterious killer Diego (aka, The Puerto Rican), Gay Larry, a shady porn mogul who owes Saul big time, Mandy and the other “dancers” at The Pink Room strip club, and the over-the-top serial killer Rufus Kane, brother of the original murder victim, Bill Kane, whose death gets the whole drama rolling – this novel features a heroine, Alison Lockley, LAPD detective, a force for justice. If we feel ambivalent about Eddie, there’s no mistaking our positive reactions to Alison. She stands up for women in the face of sexism. But even “justice” has its limits when she puts her job ahead of her son.

The genius of Nobody Move, though, is in its relentless action. If the term “page-turner” ever applied to a novel, this is it. Elliott juggles the different stories focusing on Eddie, Alison, Rufus and other characters to reach a breathtaking climax. Like something out of a Coen Brothers movie, the novel begins with the grisly murders and the slapdash burial of  Bill Kane, one of Saul Benedict’s “clients” who is late on a drug-business payment, and Dakota’s sister Kaya White. The bloodbath continues throughout, with a huge shootout during a bank robbery and a bloody car chase that makes the one in Bullitt look like kiddie cars.  “Nobody move, nobody get hurt,” Floyd advises the customers in the bank at the start of the robbery, which is  where the novel gets its title; it doesn’t work that way, of course. Certainly not as slick as Robert De Niro in Heat, to which Floyd aspires.

One of the potent themes of Nobody Move, indeed, is the movies. This is LA, after all. Indeed, one of the novels epigraphs comes from Quentin Tarantino: I steal from every single movie ever made.  From the murders to the car chases to the robberies and more, so many of the scenes feel “cinematic.” When Eddie is the airport stashing a duffel bag full of cash into a locker – also a film noir cliché – he cons a young model who is at LAX to catch a flight to Prague. Eddie lies and says that’s where he is going too. When asked why he is going there, he says he spun the globe and pointed with closed eyes and his finger landed on Prague.

“You Americans,” the girl exclaims, “you are all so dramatic. Everything is like a movie to you.”

“You know,” Eddie replies, “that’s probably the truest statement I’ve ever heard.”

Dakota is similarly a movie buff and has modeled her accent from the voices she’s heard on the big screen.

Elliott places the action in the real world of Donald Trump’s America, in which violence is always bubbling just under the surface all the time.  At the makeshift graves in Angeles National Forest where Eddie and his cohorts have dumped the bodies of Bill Kane and  Kaya White, Alison speaks with Mike, one of the cops at the scene. “Criminals are getting dumber these days,” Alison notes when he describes the sloppy work Eddie and Floyd and Sawyer did in hiding the bodies.

“Dumber or bolder,” Mike says.

“Both,” Alison says. “Like our dipshit president and his bullshit wall.”

You go, Alison!

You can find the book here: https://intothevoidmagazine.com/product/nobody-move-by-philip-elliott-print/

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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf

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Amazing Things Are Happening Here by Jacob Appel

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By Lynette G. Esposito
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Bryn Chancellor, author of:,  When Are You Coming Home? says of Amazing Things Are Happening Here: Jacob Appel writes with an assuredness and verve that is mesmerizing.  The Stories in Amazing Things are Happening Here kept me riveted with their vivid places, surprising turns, and unflinching examination of all the complex, flawed ways we live.—and reckon with—our lives.
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The eight short stories in Appel’s Amazing Things Are Happening Here are amazingly fun to read. Chancellor is right.   The 152 page collection, published by Black Lawrence Press, presents vivid locations, surprising twists that explore the human condition, and  stories with clear and unflinching examination of complex truths of everyday people.
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In the lead story, Canvassing, Appel presents a love story gone wrong as he reveals the passion political campaign workers have for the man they are supporting. The story focuses on the political bias in a love triangle situation that twists into a murder mystery.
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The story opens with I was once— briefly— a suspect in a murder investigation.  Bam! The reader wants to know more about this narrator who appears to be direct and honest with an outlandish story to tell. Yet, how do we get to the end of the story and wonder if the narrator is the actual killer of the beautiful Vanessa?
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Appel controls the storyline in all of his presentations.  In Embers, the third story in this collection, infatuation with a lovely young girl by an inexperienced teenager is the plot. The surprising turn is that this lovely creature has leukemia which changes her physical appearance so drastically that the young man cannot see her beauty.  Appel twists the story again to reveal how this has changed the young man to understand he will give up his dream to be a professional archer and that he will become a doctor like his father and give comfort where there is need.  The over concern the girl has for her firefighter father is a bit much for me but the subtlety of the characters becoming who they are make a wonderful read.  The title Embers is a well chosen symbol of a story that is coming to an end but isn’t quite gone yet as fire still sparks. This works well with the girl’s father coming through smoke and flame with the teenager who started a fire on his back. This is a fitting ending to a story of self realization. The ending does not close the door but suggests on-going situations.
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In the title story, Amazing Things are Happening Here, the sixth story in the collection, Appel begins: We were short one lunatic.  How do you save your job from a Code White because a mental patient has escaped?  You cover it up.  The story twists and turns on hiding the fact a lunatic has made his way back into society like a shadow when the light is turned off.  Much like a slap stick comedy, the psychiatrist, Dr. Brilliant, can’t see what is right in front of him.  The final paperwork discharges the lost lunatic and all is well. Jobs and reputations are saved with the exception that a mentally ill person is now free, on the streets and unaccounted for.  In order to protect our jobs and our lives, most of us have this flaw of self preservation.
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Appel uses standard fiction techniques in all of his stories.  His remarkable writing skill reveals his keen observations of people and their many idiosyncrasies. He has a light touch with symbols that makes the reader want to take a second look.  The book is a great read who likes complications and well-plotted logical resolutions.
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The book is available from Black Lawrence Press. BLP » Amazing Things Are Happening Here
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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.  Her articles have appeared in the national publication, Teaching for Success; regionally in South Jersey Magazine, SJ Magazine. Delaware Valley Magazine, and her essays have appeared in Reader’s Digest and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her poetry has appeared in US1, SRN Review, The Fox Chase Review and other literary magazines. She has critiqued poetry for local and regional writer’s conferences and served as a panelist and speaker at local and national writer’s conferences.  She lives with her husband, Attilio, in Mount Laurel, NJ.
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Ghostographs: An Album by Maria Romasco Moore

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By Charles Rammelkamp

Subtitled An Album, Ghostographs is like the memoir of an alternate universe. In her Author’s Note, Maria Romasco Moore mentions buying a Whitman’s Sampler box full of fading photographs of strangers at an antiques market in Altoona, Pennsylvania, when she was a child and imagining the lives of the people in the snapshots. That’s Ghostographs in a nutshell. The thirty-three short fictions that make up the book are all accompanied by the photographs that inspired them. Yet they all add up to a picture of a small town in post-industrial America, though with certain magical additions.

An example of how Moore’s imagination works is the story, “Aunt Beryl.” First, though, you must realize that there are a handful of aunts, as we learn in the story, “My Great Aunts,” accompanied by a photograph of five middle-aged women surrounding a child. “I had more of them than was strictly necessary,” she writes, displaying her sly sense of humor. “Everybody said so.”

Aunt Beryl is one of these aunts. The photograph that inspires her story shows two small children in the foreground, the black-and-white photograph overexposed as family photos tended to be back in the day, the faces washed out, hard to distinguish. The shadow of a woman in a hat stands before them; the sun behind her, her shadow shows a figure wearing a floppy hat. The story begins, “I’ve met her many times, but I couldn’t tell you what she looks like. I never once got a good look at her face.” She goes on to describe the floppy hat. “In my memories of her, it is the hat that stands out most. I would recognize that hat anywhere.” Indeed, the hat on the shadow figure hangs over each side of the face like forlorn donkey’s ears.

Moore sketches the town with its iconic landmarks – the abyss, a potent metaphor, like Hades in Greek mythology (“We were proud that a town as small as ours had an abyss of its own.”); the river that runs through the town. Back in the day, the river ran milk and people brought their glass bottles there to fill them. Then came the factories, and soon the milk was gone. In its place, molten glass, irregular jeans, clusters of caramel popcorn. And then the factories disappeared, and this indeed is how small-town America has evolved over time. This story is accompanied by a black and white snapshot of what appears to be a family swimming in a river.

“The River” is followed by “My Father,” with a photograph of a man standing in the river. “…my father made his living fishing for phantoms.” He “sold his ghost fish to the butcher, who knew how to prepare them….”
Thus Moore casually sneaks in references to her most potent theme – the haunting of the past that leaks into the present. And isn’t that what “an album” is? Take the photo album off the shelf, blow away the dust, look at the photographs of yourself and your family decades ago! Indeed, this is the secret of the title, Ghostographs – for just as “photography” literally means “writing with light,” these are the stories of ghosts caught by a camera lens.

It’s no surprise, then, that light and shadow, light and darkness are apt metaphors in Ghostographs. In stories like “Different Kinds of Light” and “Light” and “God in the Garden” we learn, via her grandfather, about the many kinds of light. (“Time is a kind of light, my grandpa told me,” she writes in the story, “Time.”) A girl named Tess, whose story is accompanied by an overexposed photograph of a little girl in a white dress, such that the girl glows, luminescent, is so radiant that “Moths migrated from miles around just to throw themselves at her…It hurt our eyes to look straight at her.” Later, Tess loses the light and in the children’s games of hide and seek, she is impossible to locate!

Three of the stories are entitled “Hide and Seek” and this is yet another of the threads Moore weaves through her collection. It’s easy to make the connection between visible and invisible, light and dark, the dichotomy of ghost and person in that pair of words.

Moore introduces a number of memorable characters, in addition to Tess. There is Lewis, a disdainful contemporary who grows in stature and at last becomes unrecognizable. There are the aunts, Edna and Ruth, Beryl and Millie, a woman named Hannah, the postman’s wife, who sends away for a mail-order baby. There is Rhoda, who adopts a baby pig, is rumored to suckle it at her breast. “Lewis saw her holding its front trotters in her hands, trying to teach it to walk on two legs.” (A photograph of a woman cuddling a pig accompanies this story.) There is Mabel, who “slept all summer and only woke up when it snowed.” And there are her father and mother and sister and grandpa.

The final story, “Ghost Town,” is almost elegiac in tone, accompanied by a photograph in which nothing can be clearly distinguished – only ghostly images. It’s about that unnamed hometown, which might be Altoona, Pennsylvania, but could just as easily be Potawatomi Rapids, Michigan, or a thousand others like them. “…they aren’t the people I used to know. The people I used to know are only ghosts.”

Maria Romasco Moore has a vivid and empathetic imagination. Her stories honoring that very real alternate universe are a delight to read.

You can find the book here: https://rosemetalpress.com/books/ghostographs/

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House 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 Future Cycle Press.

 

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.

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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