Book Review: The Sensualist

The Sensualist
Written by Daniel Torday
Nouvella, 2012
ISBN 9780983658542

The SensualistI should start by talking about the title. I’ve been walking around for the past two weeks with this book in my hand, and everyone who sees it gives me a look that hovers somewhere in the middle of mild shock, illicit curiosity, and outright envy. After all, I’m not normally one to read books that skew especially blue, at least not in public, and with a title like The Sensualist, it’s natural to assume that Daniel Torday’s debut novella is perhaps a more literary version of that book about fifty shades of something or other that was all the rage earlier this year.As it turns out, however, the sensualist at the heart of Torday’s novella is about as far removed as possible from anything E.L. James could ever imagine, and we’re all the better for it. Indeed, by focusing on a young Russian immigrant who imagines himself a sensualist in the style of Dmitri Karamazov—i.e., someone who says what he feels when he feels it and does what he likes to do—Torday gives his coming of age novel a center of gravity that speaks directly to the headstrong yet interstitial nature of the teenage years.

The novella tracks the relationship between the aforementioned sensualist, Dmitri Zilber, and narrator Samuel Gerson as they attempt to navigate the choppy waters of young adulthood in the early 1990s. What draws Samuel to Dmitri is the latter’s uncompromising nature. Where Samuel is occasionally cowed by his overbearing gym teacher, Dmitri pays no respect to anyone who hasn’t, in his eyes, earned it. It also helps that Dmitri has a beautiful sister named Yelizaveta, who catches Samuel’s eye and eventually steals heart.In love, or so he believes, with Yelizaveta, Samuel begins to see the world as Dmitri does: as a series of black and white propositions: right and wrong, good and bad, heroes and villains. Consequently, when Samuel learns that Yelizaveta has eyes for a popular jock, the jock becomes a villain from Samuel’s perspective, and much of the remaining narrative revolves around the narrator’s gradual realization that life rarely offers such cut-and-dried distinctions.

Ultimately, it’s this gradual realization that makes The Sensualist so effective. As he struggles to understand his relationships with Yelazaveta and Dmitri, Samuel must also deal with a grandfather whose delusions of persecution put a heavy strain on the family. Likewise, the delusions of grandeur that Samuel’s growing circle of friends tends to entertain place them in increasingly precarious positions. Through it all, what Samuel needs most is to grow comfortable with uncertainty, of occupying the spaces between good and bad, of appreciating (dare I say it?) the shades of gray that complicate human experience—and Torday leads his narrator through the winding maze of young adulthood with the deft and sensitive heart of someone who’s thoroughly explored its many twists and turns.

Thoroughly engaging and beautifully written, The Sensualist stands alongside such works as The Catcher in the Rye and The Basketball Diaries as that rare breed of book that perfectly captures the ambivalence of youth, a delicate balance of absolute certainty and uncertainty held together by the undeniable anxiety of looming adulthood. In short, an excellent read.

Review by Marc Schuster
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Three Ways of the Saw

Three Ways of the Saw
Written by Matt Mullins
Atticus Books, 2012
ISBN 9780983208068

You know things are going to take a bad turn when a co-worker arrives at the company picnic with a pair of ATVs in tow. Three Ways of the Saw is, after all, a collection of short fiction in which nothing ever goes right for any of its protagonists. In the story in question, tellingly titled “The Braid,” all is going a little too well for a pair of would-be young lovers when the ATVs arrive like the second coming of Chekhov’s gun.

The carnage that ensues is gruesome and gut wrenching, but it also serves a larger purpose. Where a lesser writer might simply offer gore for the sake of gore, author Matt Mullins uses the opportunity to comment subtly and even sensitively upon the nature of adult relationships. Such relationships can be wonderful, he insists on every page of this collection, so full of potential, but also terrifyingly fragile.

Three Ways of the SawFor the most part, the stories in Three Ways of the Saw offer up characters who run the gamut from being adrift to circling the drain. There’s the boy who struggles with questions about his own sexuality in one story and watches his parents’ relationship crumble before his eyes on a road trip through the Great American West in another. There’s the creepy voyeur who trades places with his dog in order to get to know his shapely new neighbor. There’s the girl dreading the arrival of her first period as she reluctantly embarks upon a canoe trip led by an officious priest.

There are drunks, stoners, thieves, and ne’er-do-wells lurking in every corner of this collection, yet for all of the dead-ends they encounter, Mullins always offers his characters as well as his readers a ray of hope. We are, according to Three Ways of the Saw, a curious species—one wracked with all manner of pain, but also one capable of enduring it.

Review by Marc Schuster
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Heart of Scorpio

Heart of Scorpio
Written by Joseph Avski
Translated by Mark McGraw
Tiny TOE Press, 2012

ISBN 9780985822804

Joseph Avski’s Heart of Scorpio, translated from the Spanish by Mark McGraw, offers a bittersweet meditation on the trappings of fame and its discontents. Using the rise and fall of real-life fighter Antonio Cervantes Reyes as a template, the novella follows the meteoric ascent and tragically delusional crash of a fictional Columbian boxer named Milton Olivella.Haunted by the promise of his early career, Olivella has, by the start of the narrative, long since become a ghost of his former self, yet can’t stop imagining the glorious comeback that awaits him. He just needs to clean up his act, just needs to get back into training, just needs one more chance, and the world will once again be his.

“Tell [your mother] that soon I’ll be home to stay,” Olivella tells his estranged son, Julian, at one point. “I just need to wrap up a few impending issues, you know how it is. If I can get this thing ready, we can make a little money to start fresh, to get the life back that we used to have before. Tell her that we’re going to start a new life.”

Heart of ScorpioNeedless to say, Julian, who’s been a first-hand witness to his father’s complete emotional, physical, and financial collapse, isn’t buying what the former champion is selling. Yet Julian is deluded in his own way. Born at the height of Olivella’s popularity, he lacks the motivation to make a life for himself outside the boxer’s shadow. Instead, he wallows in self-pity, wishing he had the money, the clothing, and the social standing to make women want to “hit the sheets” with him—a phrase the character utters almost incessantly throughout the novella.That Olivella and his son eventually come to blows comes as no surprise. Theirs is a world where nearly all disputes are settled through violence. More often than not, however, it’s a tragic, desperate, impotent brand of violence that ultimately and without fail ends in self-destruction. There’s no winning, Heart of Scorpio seems to argue on every pageThe best we can do is to wrap comforting narratives around the myriad failures that life inevitably delivers.

Review by Marc Schuster
© 2012, All Rights Reserved