This American Novel Takes on The Big Issues
I grow old ... I grow old ... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
-"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot
(Daring to Eat a Peach, Joseph Zeppetello, Atticus Books, 2010, 239pp.)
Joseph Zeppetello's book begins with a caustic put-on of the publishing, academic and poetry industries. "That seemed to be the rage in the arts, to have no capacity at all for shame," he writes. I liked it so much I began to worry if the rest of the book would live up to it.
Daring to Eat a Peach is published by Atticus Books of Kensington, Maryland, a press whose web savvy is startling. Publisher Dan Cafaro has digested everything Wired editor Chris Anderson has to say about the new publishing paradigm in his famous book The Long Tail as well as the ideas of e-marketing wizard Seth Godin. Cafaro understands web engagement and its exponential effect in a way few publishers grasp, and in this book it has something handsome to sell.
Denton Pike is an East European languages translator for a dreary, blood-sucking publishing subsidiary, Foster House. He is translating a pretentious pretender by whom academia is more than happy to be conned. He calls the jerk Mr. Famous Poet.
Zeppetello swabs the soullnessness of corporate culture in a kind of clinical antisepsis; nothing survives that is not malignant. Literature can't come out of Denton's work place, only its facsimile, garish and glaring, and Denton Pike has internalized this knowledge, which makes him sympathetic in the way that anyone designated to suffer for us is sympathetic. But we wouldn't want him over for Christmas in the same way we wouldn't really want Jesus in our churches for all our pretenses otherwise. Neither he nor his old buddy, Peter Blaine, an out-of-work foreign correspondent, are the kind of people whose company we hanker for, which is not to say they don't intrigue us. They are project people, and not everybody is up for a project.
Having skewered publishing and the academy, Zeppetello opens chapter three by pouring steaming acid on television news and pharmaceutical advertising-two peeves guaranteed to endear him to me-and I'm beginning to think of Aeschylus, Euripedes, Wilde and the wicked history of satire, a word that comes from the Greek word satyr, a half-human mythological figure. Daring to Eat a Peach is well populated with satyrs, starting with Denton's supervisor, Deidre, her creepy boss Farley Ackerman and his equally creepy father-in-law, who happens to own Foster House.
There is a surprising tension in the writer's style between plainspeak and recognition. The plainspeak dissuades us from looking for recognitions and then-blam-there they are. The narrative doglegs effortlessly and just as you settle in for a twist you're handed an unexpected gem: "It's as if there is an unwritten law that every moment of talk time needs to be used." I admire this seamless interweave of story line and aside. I admire its lack of pretense. It prepares us for what would otherwise be disconcerting transitions of viewpoint. It's an old reporter's trick to let silence fill a room until an interviewee feels he has to fill the vacuum, a trick lost on television.
Zeppetello has something of the prolific Upton Sinclair in him. He is a keen observer of the culture, speaking casually but knowledgeably of textbook scams, dumb-ass television "reporting," adolescent radio talk, and the fetid hypocrisy of our immigration policies. His omniscient narrator is so involved with the characters and their voices that we forgive his omniscience and start wondering which of the characters is confiding in us. This is a suave feat, especially when the narrative is seemingly linear but actually isn't; and that's another kind of feat, because few writers can have it both ways. When you get the feeling the narrator is listening to his characters you know you're not in for an over-plotted strut.
Zeppetello is interested in the state of things and is aware that we live in a culture that is insufficiently interested and therefore inclined to be hornswoggled. For example, he points out conversationally that job security is a thing of the past, a facet of the early baby boom, an artifact. We're inclined to say, Sure, we get that, until we remember that as a society we haven't gotten it and are still swallowing the elite's lie that the American Dream will be restored. I like this quality in Zeppetello of alluding to things we ought to know and may even to claim to know but in fact have not absorbed. I get the feeling he has savored H.L. Mencken, for that was Mencken's awful talent and it more than once got his tolerant employer, The Baltimore Sun, in heaps of trouble. Americans like to think they're tough and savvy, but they have proven to be the kind of suckers P.T. Barnum is reputed to have said they were.
Peach's conversational landscape is seeded with disquieting recognitions:
"But every really successful person I've ever met has been a self-absorbed, spoiled, nasty sonofabitch," the just-fired Denton tells his friend Peter Blaine, who is eking out a living editing textbooks and weeding out their writers' prejudices. The two men, late baby boomers, both former journalists, take for granted the very society that continues to be in denial about itself, a society that persists in believing in an America that has taken up residence in exploited labor markets abroad.
Critics have notably complained that American fiction is not taking on the big issues, but the finer question might be how should they be taken on? Some of our poets and storytellers are in fact confronting the realities of a compromised and corrupted America in ways of which non-fiction writers haven't dreamed-too bad if the critics have to read between the lines. Daring to Eat a Peach might also be called Daring to Pet the Elephant in the Room. Any room. The critics who deplore the absence of social concern are probably limiting their reviews to the books whose big advertising budgets pay their salaries, and that is as much a part of what is wrong with American culture as their slightly disingenuous complaint. The issue is not so much what is absent from our culture as what is ignored because there is no money to be made from it.
Daring to Eat a Peach bears some resemblance to John Updike's more lyrical Couples, which once unsettled us by looking under suburban carpets. But Updike's couples now bear the datedness of toothy Buicks and the unraveled American Dream. There is a dystopian strain in Peach whereas Couples had a kind of pornographic zing. The distance between the two works might be said to describe the troubled descent of American culture into malaise.
Social critic that he is, Zeppetello avoids the pitfall to which Ayn Rand was fatuously attracted of making talking sticks propagandize at the expense of the novelistic project. Several generations have fallen in love with her wooden dolls because their job is to license selfishness. It has been a durable wallow in adolescence. Zeppetello is a cultural commentator, but he is not an ideologue in the service of preconception. He interacts with his characters rather than leading them by the nose.
At heart Peach is a balletic choreography of relationships involving decent people who for their own reasons tend to glance off each other like marbles. It's about moving on, fondling the idea of not moving on, poking the idea's parameters, and then being carried off in the tide of one's habitude. Yes, but then-and here is the true worth of the novel, its secret-one's habitude has changed in all the goings and comings. Clothes have fallen to the floor. The reader has examined them. Peter Blaine, Denton Pike, Judy McKabe, her brother Bill, a mercenary soldier, Rita Castillo and her daughter Lina, and others-all have been transformed by their encounters. Novels don't always go this way. Sometimes they are tales of genetic and psychological destiny and haplessness. Sometimes they are tragedies. But here the characters-it would be a shame to tell their stories here-quicken the lead in each other with mercury to make it gold, and at the end they are all enriched. They are in a sense magi bearing gifts to the birth of something, and this mystery is heralded not by a star but by a phantom singer weaving a high-decibel thread through their stories. It is a thread that binds not only the chapters of the book but also the recognitions they describe.
Denton is a runner, a college athlete who persists in the habit of running to order the furniture of his mind, and he has encountered a chimerical runner who seems to sing in a pitch so high it is almost out of decibel reach, rather like a dog whistle. He sees her at a distance from time to time. Once he almost catches up, but she outruns him. She even turns and smiles. How can she sing while running? Why does she elude him when she is willing to smile back at him? Chapter after chapter this runner appears and vanishes. I take her as Denton's own epiphanic spirit, holding out to him the possibility that simply moving on is not enough; one must dare to eat the peach.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller's Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del's book, Far From Algiers New review of Far from Algiers
Artists Hill, Literal Latte fiction first prize
Djelloul Marbrook Blog
His mother's art: www.juanitaguccione.com His aunt's art: www.irenericepereira.com
* The views of Opinion writers do not necessarily reflect the views of NewsBlaze
Related Book Publishing News