One of the best lines I’ve read this year comes from Boston Teran‘s second novel, Never Count Out the Dead: ”Why slow dance with reality, if you’re never gonna fuck?“ The author of 1999‘s God Is a Bullet doesn’t do much slow dancing of any kind, not with reality, syntax or plotting, but he‘s got the steel-toed mosh-pit pulp stomp down. Never Count Out the Dead is a motel-room-meth-lab explosion of a novel, its constituent parts landing where they may, molten, semideformed and still smoking.
It would be foolish to attempt a plot summary, but among those smoldering parts is beautiful, tough, tortured Shay Storey’s attempt to break free from her gristly, ”speedfreak nasty“ psycho-killer mom, Dee (as in Dee Storey, get it?), and to absolve herself of the guilt she carries for helping her ma bury a cop alive in Baker at the tender age of 13. Then there‘s the cop himself, who goes by the name Sully in the beginning of the book and Vic for the rest, who rises from his desert grave and returns to Southern California years later seeking justice at the behest of Landshark, a millionaire agoraphobe reporter for an L.A. rag called the New Weekly (described by Vic as ”some throwaway piece of shit with its left-wing head up its ass and an overdose of ads,“ which we’ll take as a compliment, thank you). Teran delivers some blackmail, some unpleasant-sounding sex (”His stomach slaps hard into hers and when they orgasm it is like some hemorrhage of blood“), a few stabs at redemption, and a whole lot of murder and mayhem. It‘s all got something to do with the Belmont scandal, though I’m still not sure what.
No matter, Teran isn‘t striving for social realism. Never Count Out the Dead is delightfully unrefined pulp with all the verisimilitude of an old Spider-Man comic. A case in point is Landshark, who hands out rolls of hundreds and hides glamorously away in a Mount Washington compound complete with shooting range and ”war room,“ who’s ready to stage an elaborate shootout to get his hands on incriminating LAUSD documents. You‘re not likely to run into Dee at the supermarket either, if you’re lucky. A stone-cold killer who‘s not past stitching her own wounds (one-handed!) when necessary, and who uses the word clit as an adjective (as in ”Don’t-go-fucking-clit-on-me!“), Dee is a glorious antihero. The bizarre mother-daughter power struggles between her and Shay are Never Count Out the Dead‘s crowning achievement. She’s also got a way with words. ”I am gonna spike that shotgun up your couch-cushion ass and do you. And him. Then I‘ll go home and fuckin’ masturbate with the barrel,“ she tells one unfortunate.
If only all of Teran‘s dialogue were as much fun. Never Count Out the Dead is almost all action. It only drags during a few too-long time-outs for self-exploration, a la ”I don’t know why God made me agoraphobic. I don‘t know why.“ But it’s rarely conventionally bad. Teran‘s writing is weird enough to be thrilling, even when it doesn’t make any sense (as in ”a smog so thick it fired a sunset into the red of some darker curse“). For all his comic-book excess, Teran provides a pure, exhilaratingly disturbing vision of, as he puts it, ”the vile insane colors of a country that means to hang you by the purse strings.“
Equally enjoyable in its own quiet way, Ana Menendez‘s writing couldn’t be more different from Teran‘s. Well-mannered, sensitive and sparkling with MFA polish, the 11 stories that make up In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd provide a tender and occasionally sharp-fanged portrait of Miami’s Cuban-exile community. The title story captures the mood of the collection well: Four men — two Cubans and two Dominicans — meet daily to play dominos and tell stories in a Little Havana park as tourists gawk at the quaint ethnic spectacle. Maximo, unmoored by nostalgia and regret, tearfully tells a joke about a little dog ”just off the boat from Cuba“ who tries to pick up a hoity-toity poodle. When she rebuffs him, the dog responds, ”Pardon me, your highness . . . Here in America I may be a short, insignificant mutt, but in Cuba I was a German shepherd.“
Most of these stories, set in a community living off its own musty memories, are about stories: how they keep individuals, couples, communities alive, the way they twist and deform us as much as we shape them. A young woman goes to Cuba to visit her mother‘s family home — always described to her as a great and sprawling mansion — and finds a humble farmhouse. A woman lies on the beach with her lover, whom she fears she’s losing, and asks, ”What stories are true? We awake and a lover is gone, has been going and now is gone too, and we are left in a clutch of stories. Why do we tell them?“
At their worst, Menendez‘s tales are too polite, too predictably New Yorker–ish with their tiny domestic dramas. (In ”The Last Rescue,“ one Anselmo lies awake at night, jealous of his wife’s friendship with a co-worker: ”Why hadn‘t she mentioned the tennis?“ he obsesses.) But at their best they’re brave and funny and true, as in ”Miami Relatives,“ a sad and hilarious portrait of the Cuban-American community personified as one spectacularly dysfunctional family. Grandma climbs a mango tree and spits cardamom seeds into the yard; a radio grows out of grandfather‘s ear (”Now Radio Mambi follows him everywhere, the high-pitched voices of the afternoon program seeping out of his pores like insects screaming“); Aunt Julia bites the mailman because she thinks he stole a letter from ”the old uncle in Havana,“ a mythologized Castro whose photo hangs in a darkened closet. ”We all pretend to hate the old uncle,“ the young narrator writes, ”but I’m thinking things are more complicated.“ Wiser than her elders, seeing through the webs of secrets and stories, she concludes: ”There is no curse. There is no bleeding moment when it all began. It is all very simple and funny: He is crazy because of us and we are crazy because of him.“
Deanne Stillman‘s Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines and the Mojave takes us back, as Boston Teran put it, ”through fired dimensions of lavaed rock and sand [to] the terrible country where no scream can be heard“ — to the desert, that is, specifically to the military town of the title. Far more ambitious than your average teller of true-crime tales, Stillman goes beyond the bare details of her topic, the 1991 rape and murder of 15-year-old Mandi Scott and 20-year-old Rosie Ortega by a Marine named Valentine Underwood. She digs as deep as she can into the down-and-out desert culture in which the crime took place, providing an entire family history of Mandi’s clan (tracing the lineage matrilineally), which forms a sort of shadow history of California — a long line of working-class women trying to escape their circumstances but finding themselves trapped and trapped again by dead-end jobs and men who start out nice but disappear or turn mean, or who start out mean and stay that way.
Mandi‘s mother, Debie McMaster, flees a number of such men and ends up hoping to get away and start over in a $200-a-month bungalow in Twentynine Palms. Stillman nicely describes the world in which her daughter grows up, a desert melange of bikers, Marines, poor whites, Samoans and black gangbangers in court-imposed exile from L.A., where teenage sex and crack are as common as Budweiser, which is very common indeed. Stillman, to her great credit, never patronizes or moralizes. She finds love, strength and heroism where Twentynine Palms’ upper-crust townspeople see only ”trash.“
Twentynine Palms is well-crafted, jumping back and forth between the events leading up to the murders and Underwood‘s trial and eventual sentencing seven years later. Only occasionally does Stillman’s prose tilt toward the melodramatic, anthropomorphizing the desert, describing yet again its unquenchable thirst for blood. The book‘s one real problem is Stillman’s inability to get into Marine culture with as much insight and compassion as she exhibits in her investigations of the off-base world. This may be out of revulsion for Underwood‘s crime, which is more than warranted, but the relative flatness of his character comes off as a failure of the imagination. Her explanation of his deeds as part of ”the longest undeclared war in military history, the military war on female civilians,“ while interesting and likely justified, doesn’t quite suffice. But overall, Stillman does what journalism always should — she immerses herself and her reader in a world at which few desire even to peek, depriving both of the familiar comforts of prejudice and cliche.
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