By Paul Golding
Vintage (2002), $15
This debut novel mostly comprises a meticulously rendered history of the childhood of Santiago Moore Zamora -- known at his British boarding school as James Moore and to his mother as Iago -- bookended by an exhaustive examination of Iago's assignation with a "man-whore." Iago (a telling nickname) is the son of an Englishman and a wealthy Spanish-speaking islander, though the island is never identified, and the tensions between the two backgrounds are played out in the tension between the boy's island home life and his experiences at school. Golding avoids the pitfalls of typical coming-of-age/coming out novels in part by presenting Iago as the aggressor in most of his youthful sexual escapades, which start when he's nine. But this leads to problems with Iago's credibility as a narrator. We get direct access to his thoughts from age two into adulthood, yet the level of sophistication in Iago's narrative voice never changes. This and an excessive accretion of detail, almost completely unbroken by dialogue, and the disturbing sense that Iago has never recovered -- and never will -- from the abomination that was his childhood, render the book a difficult and often painful read, despite Golding's ability to describe even the most mundane details of daily life with accurate and layered richness.
-- Michelle Falkoff
Death in Troy
By Bilge Karasu
City Lights (2002), $11.95
Set in the 1950s, this work by one of Turkey's most influential writers is not strictly a novel; it won't be so easily defined. Starting with a return by the narrator, Suat, to the town of his youth, it moves on to relate stories of people he once knew. And though much of it focuses on Suat and his love for another young man, he occasionally abandons his post, allowing other characters to take over and relate events that don't directly involve him, leaving loose plot-threads that can't be easily knotted onto the main rug of the story. This can feel like lack of focus, but Karasu's masterful narration inclines the reader to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps his refusal to be bound by the formal constraints of "The Novel" is meant to reflect his characters' refusal to be bound by the moral constraints of society as they confront their sexualities in a country that, though secular in government, is still largely Muslim in culture. The imagery and language are immediate and visceral, yet Karasu never lets words steal focus from the people they describe. He's prone to break off mid-sentence for a rush of free verse that conveys the uncontainable gush of the narrator's soul or a poignant set-piece. Those characters who recur chapter to chapter, loving and yearning, are what unite this work, dragging the reader along as they struggle to get through this thing together, novel or not.
-- Dustin Long
By William Nack
Da Capo (2002), $16.50
First published as Big Red of Meadow Stable in 1975, two years after the champion ran his last race, this has been hailed ever since as the gold standard of horse sports history. Nack updates this new edition by reappraising the Secretariat legend with three decades' worth of hindsight. The big red horse survives, not only in the electrifying records he set, but also in the pages of this superbly researched book. Horse of the Year in 1972 and 1973, winner of the 1973 Triple Crown races, Secretariat arrived feet-first when he was foaled in 1970. Nack goes back before that, to the 1860s, tracing human and equine bloodlines through the dynasties of the Meadow Stable to generations of blooded horses in Secretariat's lineage, including Nasrullah and Bold Ruler. He then follows Secretariat's development from "an overgrown pumpkin of a colt" to superhorse. A massive beast that thrived on blistering workouts and never missed an oat, Secretariat was considered too good-looking to run. Once he did, though, he blazed. New here are Secretariat's brilliant racing record, a retrospective of his career at stud, and Nack's award-winning Sports Illustrated article about Secretariat's death. (Save this for last.) This is a book of superlatives -- a history of perhaps the greatest racehorse ever. But it is also the chronicle of a flesh-and-blood animal, written with all the grit and grace of truth.
-- Elizabeth M. Kim
By Kevin Wignall
Simon & Schuster (2002), $22
Teasing readers with tantalizing details about why a history major would become a hitman, Wignall gets into the head of his protagonist, J.J., whose life has gone inexplicably awry. Witnessing this cool customer go about his cold-blooded work, one at first admires his detachment, then realizes the emotions beneath his surface are complex. When his lover is murdered, "he wanted to feel grief but felt guilt instead, and a disjointed sadness, even relief." Her killing and those of others in his circle tell J.J. he's the target now. And as he retraces his steps across Europe, we learn who he was before he started freelancing. But when his research into who wants him dead leads him to a Vermont inn owned by the wife of a hit, things take a disappointing detour -- from an elegant, noirish, Continental world to the implausible pastel innocence of Ben-and-Jerryland, where J.J. becomes the hitman with a heart of gold. The innkeeper's teenage daughter speaks basic "like, whatever" language, but J.J. is captivated, and sets about turning her into the object of his redemption. Wignall hasn't got an ear for dialogue, which is most apparent when he's attempting to reproduce American speech. Yet he writes beautiful descriptions. Whatever.
-- Pat Katzmann
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