Spuyten Duyvil Press

Max Turns Yellow by Martha King

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By Jim Feast

Although Martha King’s Max Turns Yellow is a standalone murder mystery, a reader familiar with her last book, Max Sees Red, will be able to see how, taken together, the two books serve as an interesting commentary on the course of gentrification and the place artists play in the process. Let me say a little something about that before I get to this book’s special charm.

Red is set in the Soho of the mid-1970s, which is turning from what, in the time of the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s and ‘50s, was an industrial neighborhood of small factories with a few artists’ loft scattered among them, into an attraction where New Jerseyites and other tourists come to gawk at the Bohemians. At that time, Max Birtwhistle is still making a name for himself as a painter and is living in this area where he can keep his finger on the art market’s pulse.  At the same time, more successful artists are colonizing the Hudson Valley, much to the chagrin of the locals who resent the intrusion of Manhattanites who are buying up all the old family manses. Jump ahead ten years to 1986, and Max has become successful. However, instead of lighting out for the sticks, he helps to start the latest hip trend and moves to the Brooklyn waterfront, taking a place in Dumbo. There he can get cheaper space (in an old pickle factory!!) and quiet. Although the district has few inhabitants, the locals who are in residence are disturbed by this growing incursion. This is especially the case for those in the Mafia-connected restaurant, who would prefer fewer peering eyes.

The change of geographic focus can be tied to formal differences in the novels. Where Red, in keeping with a story that takes place partly in Soho and partly in a rural enclave upstate, is a sprawling work, filled with varied subplots, shifting milieus and a diverse cast of rambunctious characters; Yellow, set in an under-populated neighborhood, is more focused in plot and delves more deeply into the psyches of its fewer characters. It is a more intense read. But it is also Max’s own status that changes the tones of the book. In Red, as an up-and-comer, he has to be out circulating at the Soho bars – one is lovingly described in a delightful thumbnail – and gallery openings. The book is chock full of incident. In Yellow, Max is established and doesn’t have to gad about so much. He can stay home and concentrate on art making, up to a point.

The point is murder. But the killing is different than in the last book. There, in keeping with the book’s picaresque quality, Max gets involved because an oddball writer of his acquaintance has entangled himself in the murder of his editor. Often, though, since he is only peripherally involved, Max watches from the sidelines.

This time it’s personal. Max is living with his girlfriend Britz. She goes out one night when he is asleep and doesn’t come back. Soon enough, her body is found floating in the river. Max is devastated. His sadness throughout the book gives the text a somber complexion, new to King’s writing. Moreover, another new element, as he gets involved in investigating what happened, Max uncovers a mystery in triplicate. Not only is there Britz’s death but, as it turns out, her brother Theo is facing the possibility of being sued for plagiarizing from his writing teacher, even accused of killing him. Moreover, Britz’s earlier life, which she had been cagey about revealing to Max, is itself filled with shocking secrets.

While Red was an engaging read, it was not put together along the lines of a traditional murder mystery in the way Yellow is. In line with generic conventions, this new book begins with a shocker, is filled with unexpected but plausible twists that keep piling up, has moments of real menace (especially in relation to the Mafia’s hangout), and there are times when suspense is ratcheted up to exquisite heights.

And yet, for all these similarities, Yellow is not a typical mysteries. First, there is a depth of characterization in the portrayal of Max that is unusual. As already noted, Max is broken-hearted and much of the book is pervaded by a carefully rendered sadness, quite different from the equitable tone of other crime novels. Max’s circumstances after the disappearance change in a paradoxical way. From living a quiet life with Britz, he now becomes entangled with her brother and with her now-separated parents, whom Britz hadn’t seen for decades. Hadn’t seen for good reason as they were cultists who, when they were growing up, had taken her brother and her from one wacko organization to another. Moreover, to suggest some of the complications, Max is disoriented by Britz’s mother. When he first meets her, “Max’s mouth went dry. The slender woman with silver-gray hair walking toward the glass bus terminal door could have been Britz perhaps twenty years older.”

This can be disconcerting, especially as he is putting her up in his space until the funeral. Meanwhile, the father, who hasn’t been in New York for many years and who from all reports was a burned-out hippie, turns out to know some of the big corporate players connected to the large cancer research institution where Britz worked. Max is forced to contend with these complex and semi-antagonistic personalities as well as with the police, the Mafia (who may be involved), the researchers from Britz’s company, and others who come out of the woodwork. All this happens as he is beset with a grief and misery that is little alleviated by his hunt for the killer.

Second, the book further differentiates itself due to the already suggested, serious thematic substructure which makes location crucial to the story. King shows how people’s lives, their plots as it were, are intimately shaped by their surroundings. With uncanny precision, she evokes the ambience of the area, which is so attractive to artists. She describes Max’s morning walk, “Whatever the weather, it was bracing to trot through the waterfront streets at dawn. Harbor water scented the air even though access to the river itself was for the most part blocked. The variation in light and weather fascinated Max every day. The rhythms primed him for his work.”

Dumbo is edging from being a dilapidated manufacturing zone to being a classy, pricey neighborhood, so it is ambiguous territory. At this point in time the residents find both the joys of solitude, as in our hero’s morning wanderings through deserted streets, and the dangers of the evening. This last is illustrated by the night Britz disappears. Someone from work asks to meet her in her neighborhood at 10 pm. In most parts of the city, the streets would still be busy, but in this area to get to her rendezvous she must walk past the cavernous warehouses and shutdown factories.  It is with an observant eye that King paints her unforgettable portrait of a neighborhood shedding its skin.

While her first murder mystery was a well-structured, lively tale, the purist mystery reader might have found that book too full, with many cross-currents that were not part of the central crime. With this book, King has supplied all the prerequisites of a crime novel, including a taut story, which goes twisting and turning without losing its tight focus, and other elements already enumerated, that are so pleasing to the mystery buff. She does this while offering a profundity of theme and character that goes beyond generic expectations.

You can find the book here: http://www.spuytenduyvil.net/max-turns-yellow.html

Jim Feast is the author of two poetry books, the latest being A Strange Awakening of Light that Takes the Place of Dawn (2020).

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Edju By RW Spryszak

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The Surrealism of War, Politics, Religion and Everything Else

By Larissa Shmailo

RW Spryszak;s Edju is a compelling, thought-provoking read, possibly one of the best antiwar novels since Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. Its eponymous unreliable narrator is certainly as odd as Trumbo’s and every bit as opinionated. Edju’s point of view is skewed, we suspect, but the surreal world he encounters is undeniably more so. Populated by fantastic saints, monstrous war machines, and fatalistic animate metaphors of death, the world of Edju threatens us with the core horror of humans systematically killing one another for questionable ideas.

Reading Edju, I saw elements of the original picaresque novel in the adventures of its Quixotic, but always truthful, protagonist. But his story—a hagiography, perhaps, if Edju’s time-warping memory serves— is a continuing exercise in excess, an attempt to trump absurdist and surrealist writing of past several centuries. There are loud shout outs to Gogol’s nose and Kharm’s corpses, and more than a few scenes that are reminiscent of Kafka and even an absurdist Robinson Crusoe.

All of this is done in a slow reveal—we learn the name of the narrator, an old man mocked by children only in the eighth chapter. We assume Edju is mad, hopelessly odd, a compulsive-obsessive religious fanatic, a kook who thinks his dead lover is strangely and selectively alive in a sack. As his Nordic world unfolds in subsequent chapters, we come to believe this limited being is the only sane man on his dystopic nation.

The central conceits of the novel, Edju’s windmills, are surreal metaphors for war and competition in reduction ad absurdem: war machines fueled by human bodies, a Mountain of Flesh all are eager to climb, factions absurdly fighting over table cloths which have become their last banners, a Maze of defense. The path to war is depicted accurately, starting with pamphlets and the rise of fascism and inevitably followed by

Leftist Agrarian Front. Rightist National Unity. Holy Orders of the Fist of God. The Liberal Party. The Conservative Party. Liberal Conservatives and Conservative Liberals. The Armed Hand of the Nation. Nuns. All armed. All vying for power

And:

Évitez les faux, they shouted. Libérez nos bébés, they called. N’accepte pas les substituts. It seemed like a full-scale rebellion was at hand. I had no idea if those phrases were in any way grammatical and correct. But in times of revolution even the commas get misplaced.

Religion fares no better than politics. In nomenclature reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s Year of the Depends Undergarment, faith in Edju’s universe is represented by Bibliana, saint of headaches and hangovers, Our Lady That Didn’t Tumble, Saint Fomildehyde, and extremely peculiar paths to canonization.

The writing of Edju is synaesthetic and witty, replete with eyepopping detail, zinger similes, and wise one liners:

Death makes everyone an outcast.
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There was a tan gray moon, a pure slice of venom in the blood, floating overhead.

Climbing up the em­bankment was a struggle, but her perfume reached out like a muscular ghost that held me close to its face of vapors. As wrong as elephants.

Left to the devices of nature all things decay. Why is this not the basis of the theory of everything they search for?
The rain fell so hard it opened graves.
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If you are not them, you are the other. It’s in the Constitu­tion now.

Firing a gun is like fucking a ghost.
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RW Spryszak’s unusual hero’s journey belongs on your reading list. Like many fine works that eptly mine and mime our culture, it is novel, in the first meaning of the word.

You can find the book here:

http://www.spuytenduyvil.net/edju.html

Larissa Shmailo is an American poet, novelist, translator, and critic.  Her poetry collections are Medusa’s Country, #specialcharacters, I n Paran, the chapbook A Cure for Suicide, and the e-book Fib Sequence;  her latest novel is Patient Women. Shmailo’s work has appeared in Plume, the Brooklyn Rail, Fulcrum, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, the Journal of Poetics Research, Drunken Boat, Barrow Street, and the anthologies Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters, Words for the Wedding, Contemporary Russian Poetry, Resist Much/Obey Little: Poems for the Inaugural, Verde que te quiero verde: Poems after Garcia Lorca, and many others. Shmailo is the original English-language translator of the world’s first performance piece, Victory over the Sun by Alexei Kruchenych. Shmailo also edited the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry and has been a translator on the Russian Bible for the American Bible Society. Please see more about Shmailo at her website at www.larissashmailo.com  and Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/  Larissa_Shmailo.

 

 

 

Recently Received Books

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We update this link on a regular basis. These publications are available to reviewers for possible publication at North of Oxford.

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/11/12/recently-received-books/

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