Readers and writers: Three novels that are out of the ordinary

Three novels, including the big PEN prize winner, are our good reads today.

“Sometimes Creek”: by Steve Fox (Cornerstone Press, $24.95 paperback).

And it occurs to you that somehow this man can move the dark. Like pushing a coin across the table with only your thoughts, he can grasp darkness between his fingertips … you’re convinced he got there by opening a crack in the blackness and stepping out to join you in your mutual exile. Greet you and share a drink and set you straight. And that soon he’ll disappear back inside. You know it. — From “Sometimes Creek”

Steve Fox, award-winning Wisconsin writer, offers 17 stories in his debut collection. Reading some of these Midwestern pieces is like looking in a cracked mirror — everything seems slightly off-center.

A 10-year-old who just threw a hockey game because he hates the kid who would have scored is visited by a homeless man with a dark face who offers the boy some wisdom. In another story a man is followed by a swarm of bats, which he calls his little blind flying mice. Speaking of mice, a man at a party goes to the basement for beer and confronts a monster mouse with whom he chats.
Another weird tale is about a man who goes for a walk with his dog, thinking everybody is dead, but he keeps meeting living people. In a more tender story, set in Spain, an American woman says she likes her boyfriend better “in Spanish” until he leaves and she realizes she just wants him. In the last piece, a man newly arrived in a neighborhood that makes a big thing out of Halloween gets reassurance from a woman who doesn’t have any candy, either.

The only story that doesn’t seem to fit in this collection is about what becomes of the body of a dog whose head is blown off. Most of the other stories are weird; this one is unappealing.

Fox is winner of the Rick Bass Montana Prize for fiction, the Great Midwest Writing Contest, and a Midwestern Gothic Summer flash contest. His fiction has been published in national literary journals

“Dr. No”: by Percival Everett (Graywolf Press, $16)

“‘You know,’ Trigo said, his doggie chin resting on the side of the tub. ‘Hegel had it turned around. One doesn’t start with a thesis. One starts with the antithesis. Everyone always underestimates negation.’

Why are you talking about Hegel?’ I asked.

‘Kant you see?’ he said.” — From “Dr. No”

This banter between math professor Wala Kitu and his one-legged dog sums up “Dr. No,” a romp inspired by the first James Bond film with a healthy dose of musing on mathematics and physics. It ranges from women in Pussy Galore-inspired jumpsuits, including a robot, to little zingers such as a general named Takitall.

Published by Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press, this inventive and weird novel earlier this month won the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award for its originality, merit and impact. In his acceptance speech at the award ceremony, the author thanked Fiona McCrae, his longtime editor and former Graywolf director/publisher.

Wala Kitu, whose name means “nothing” in Tagalog and Swahili, is a Black math professor who specializes in studying nothing and he does nothing about it. This leads to lots of discussion about the nature of nothing and what to do with it. Because if you are talking about nothing, then it is something.

Kitu’s expertise draws him into the circle of millionaire John Sill, also Black, whose parents were killed by police and he’s seeking revenge, but in a jolly way.

Sill wants to be a James Bond-style villain and he pays Kitu $3 million to help him break into Fort Knox to find a shoebox in which there is — nothing. He also wants to use his space laser to obliterate a small town in Massachusetts to nothingness. But is it nothing already?

Kitu is a 36-year-old bachelor who admits to being “on the spectrum.” He can’t drive, has never touched a woman, and takes everything literally. He accepts Sill’s offer, worrying about his zonked-out colleague, astrophysicist Eigen Vector, who joins them. They live in luxury as they fly around to Sill’s houses and learn about his Bondish toys — helicopters, a submarine.

While this tongue-in-cheek novel can be read simply as a romp, it helps to be a fan of the James Bond characters. And with all due respect to the PEN judges, some of the dialogue about math and physics slows down the fun. But the trap door that sends a guest plummeting into the shark tank is really cool. And so is James Bond.

“Favorite Daughters”: by Laurel Osterkamp (Black Rose Writing, $25)

“His blue eyes bore into me. ‘And yet you stayed friends with her. You became best friends with the girl who admitted to using you. Now you work for her mother, which means you used a lie as a springboard for your entire adult life.'” — From “Favorite Daughters”

The tangled world of politics, friendship and love are center stage in this award-winning Minneapolis writer’s novel about four friends who meet at Columbia University.

Aubrey Adam-Drake is as close to royalty as you can get in the U.S. Her father is a Prince of Liechtenstein, her grandfather is a past U.S. president and her mother is running for the Senate. Beautiful Marina Hunt, who had her own reality show, is the daughter of of a powerful lawyer who defended mob bosses and was the mayor of Atlantic City. Third in their trio is wealthy Finn.

Marina and Aubrey befriend Elyse Gibbons, daughter of a single mom, who is way out of the two superstars’ league. But she’s a reporter for the school newspaper and so Marina and Aubrey draw her into their plot to expose a predatory professor. The women stay friends as Elyse works as a community organizer in her home town, Aubrey marries and has a child, and Marina marries Finn for political purposes, even though Marina is a lesbian and Finn loves Elyse.

Their friendships are tested when the two powerful Adam-Drake and Hunt families vie for the presidency and Elyse is caught in the middle when she becomes the youngest woman ever to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. With the help of Aubrey and Marina she is able to get the ERA legislation passed in the last state that was needed to ratify it. But as her friends’ families’ presidential campaigns heat up, old secrets from college surface. When Elyse considers running for governor, Aubrey warns her that powerful forces will take her down. But she ignores them and becomes governor.

Despite their ups and downs since they left college, Aubrey, Marina and Elyse never break their friendship.

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