A Mystery's no Problem
A laugh-out-loud ride through the highs and lows of contemporary America. It’s satire, it’s comedy, but it’s also a serious and inventive look at what The States are really like in the tradi-tion of Nathanael West, Sinclair Lewis, and Mark Twain—if, that is, they had read Evelyn Waugh and Wyndham Lewis! At times elegant, at times a tall tale, at times tender, at times phil-osophical, it is a wonderful pastiche of various styles, moods, narrative techniques. But through all the funny wild ride there’s a sadness and an earnest engagement with contemporary issues, corruptions—and possibilities. It is a book that should be wildly popular, if we could only hear, only read with attention.
—Richard L. Lewis
Funny, witty, wise, Lou Rowan’s A Mystery’s No Problem (Equus Press) gets my vote this year [for the Not the Booker Prize]. Mind you, Rowan would probably get my vote anyway since he edits The Golden Handcuffs Review—whether pitched at SM members of the Kardashian family or corrupt bankers in private jails remains a mystery. What is not a mystery is Rowan’s latest book whose punning title says it all: a mystery is easy peasy; a mystery is not of the same nature as a problem since a problem may be solved, while a mystery, like a miracle, remains unresolved. The mystery is Rowan’s writing life, how he found his way, or didn’t, how from reading and heritage he is what he is. In finding his way Lou Rowan gives us hilarious stories of contemporary America with all of its fads, corruptions and strengths.
Rowan’s narrator is no Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, he is simply “Lou”, who like a latter-day Don Quixote has traded his spavined Rocinante for an ecologically re-sponsible Prius, taking a picaresque journey across a post-Pynchon America where villains are called Alphonso (“Airport Al”) Brutale–not to be confused with Alphonse (The Toilet) Banale—and Anthony (“Tony Clam”) Scungile. There seems to be a battle going on to control the smuggling of “the king of North-Western clams”, the phallic geoduck (pronounced “gooey-duck”), which goes down big with phallic-challenged Chinese. Lou witnesses senseless violence and mayhem and offers help to wounded gangsters and corrupt police chiefs (shades of Chandler’s “Bay City”), help that is refused in bursts of scatological insult. But there’s something else other going on under the radar.
This something is an evil tie-in between dictators, the Mafia and hedge funds represented by Mafia boss Enrico (The Jackhammer) Montevenero and Augusto Pino-chet together with” the hidden hand” of Warren Peter Wynch (Rowan has great fun with investment banking and economics). Simultaneously the seamus/detective, Seamus Heaney is trying to crack the case; were he to answer the questions he might resolve the mystery.
Beneath the fun and mayhem Rowan is trying to instruct his readers in some-what nineteenth-century terms: “Dear reader, my adventures in this tarnished paradise yield crucial lessons for us all”. This is an America where “the toxic abstractions of fi-nance fuse with the engineered realities of commerce”, it is a country where a good man is even harder to find than ever before, who strives to do good and lead an authentic life, with a sensibility that, in a post-Enron post-Brexit world, is more European than many Europeans, a good man inhabiting a world that is prescient of the next Trump, if not the last trump.
What strikes one most about this book is the deadpan, self-deprecating voice of the narrator--a bit like the voice of the only sane person in one of those Film Noirs of the 1950's like The Snakepit--that continues on through a modernized and somewhat tidied up version of the Scroll of the Punishment of Sinners--an early masterpiece of Japanese Tendai art--only there are no horse-headed demons chopping up souls into salad garnishes, no giant chickens raking screaming sinners to red notations--but everyone is soon brought to the spiked heel by the mounting absurdities of office politics, of love, of the continuing struggle to align what should be with what is and the troubling introspections this causes the sympathetic narrator to engage in. The sentences, I might add, are great--in fact they're light-years better than the sentences I'm unrolling with e-cigarette in holder clenched between teeth at an ungodly hour of the A.M.--indeed, A Mystery's No Problem is worth the price of admission for the sentences alone. I love this book and have gone back more than once to smile over the chapters.
This is the kind of book that film critics repurposed the adjective "delirious" for. Starting off with the hucksterist "My Pledge to You", it then proceeds to gleefully confound expectations, starting off with a candid slice of literary autobiography spanning New York City and the Pacific North West, then veering into a roller-coaster ride populated by gangsters, politicians and drug-dealers. Very funny. Erm, a little like post-Trump America? Not so funny?
They are wonderfully irrepressible prose with a thematic appreciation of fine/unrefined quirkiness.
—Rachel Blau DuPlessis (referring to both A Mystery’s no Problem and Alphabet of Love Serial)
Alphabet of Love Serial
These very short stories are a blend of maybe memoir, crazed case history, and raunchy comic fiction spun by a deadpan narrator with a gift for dazzling transitions.
People, swimming in or dragged on helplessly by the riptides of life, is where Lou Rowan pitches his tent to watch, linger, explain, laugh & cry. And we can't but laugh at the laughers in this alphabet of all of us struggling, worrying, self-obsessed, miserable & ridiculous. A stylish, brave & funny book containing a zoo.
Lou Rowan's Love's (Oystercatcher Press)
Ian Brinton, from Tears in the Fence
In his 1640 publication of prose, Timber: or, Discoveries, Ben Jonson suggested that ‘Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind.’ It brought to the fore a sense that the words we use are an integral aspect of who we are: the language we use gives our audience a picture of what is lying hidden in our minds. I recall telling Year 7 pupils that no one can see inside your mind and that therefore language, moving like a shark’s fin carving its path through the waters, gives an indication to the observer of what lies beneath the surface, hidden. I am also old enough to remember that Penguin Modern Poets 10, The Mersey Scene, which appeared in 1967. It contained glimpses of the world made new by "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" and Adrian Henri’s accumulation of one-line pictures of the new world of sexuality, nostalgia and urban isolation:
‘Love is feeling cold in the back of vans
Love is a fanclub with only two fans
Love is walking holding paintstained hands
Lou Rowan’s merging of memory and desire, which has the effect of stirring dull roots with spring rain, is an altogether more serious affair than Adrian Henri’s and one which must be returned to time and again as the layers of meaning yield themselves to engaged reading. When Toby Olson wrote about Rowan’s Reality Street publication of stories, Alphabet of Love Serial, he referred to the ‘weave’ of stories, the ‘haunting sense of connection between them’ and the way that the ‘imagined emerges into autobiography’ presenting the reader with something ‘brand new, often wonderfully coming forth in their syntax and development…as if…writing in a new language.’ Perhaps those qualities hinted at above can be seen with increasing clarity in ‘Fights’, the opening poem of this new Oystercatcher:
‘won’t dim your eyes harden
your lips flatten my chin
or abort this spring
days will stretch and nights strain
there will be blood and sobs
I doubt we’ll die…
I’ll lick your whiskers
so close we blur
eyes widen in the dark
As the negatives of the first stanza, the denials, move towards the embracing gesture of expansiveness in line four there is a sharpening of focus which concludes with a wry smile. The closeness of the relationship in the last two stanzas has required language’s magnifying glass to focus upon a movement of particularities: twining and licking moves to widening and twitching.
The second poem in the collection, ‘Vain Letters’, with its double sense of both vanity and uselessness (these letters are in vain!) weaves the names Jocelyn, Ann and Rowan into a musical jamboree of ‘Jas, roc, an’ simfanny’. A later piece of lyrical effusion concerning the closeness of love offers us something far beyond that world of Adrian Henri’s distant twist of ironic lips. The fourth stanza of Henri’s ‘Love Is…’ dwells upon loss, regret and a sweet sense of nostalgia:
‘Love is white panties lying all forlorn
Love is a pink nightdress still slightly warm
Love is when you have to leave at dawn
Lou Rowan’s poem opens with a greater sense of clarity and thought:
‘I can’t want
to know where I begin or
you don’t end
soft and smooth you lie back
flesh rising to me at each breath
hips solid like sea-clams
dream-limits to my desire’ [.]
This is a poetry where the personal and the public entwine as they might have done in late sixteenth-century songs or sonnets and it comes as no surprise to read the metaphysical idea which opens one page
‘a line is formed by two planes or
it’s a set of points connecting two points
the most directly
there have to be laws
so each touch engenders
a sheaf of lines right there
lines joining feeling longing knowing wanting
and each sheaf
bouquets of grasses and stems
at each touch
the atom kernel whole point or crux [.]
These are thoughtful and playful poems: a delight to the mind.
Tears in the Fence No. 63 (United Kingdom), Spring 2016. tearsinthefence.com
Lou Rowan's exuberant and richly varied book presents a series of dramatic monologues chose personal and imaginary components are fused in the blaze of the author's enthusiasm. The feeling that he is doing exactly what he wants to do produces consistently lively results, no matter how downbeat the struggles described—with parents, lovers, wives good and bad, business problems, and of course the inescapable self. In the final story, a counterpoint of all these voices raises the narration to a level of intensity both harrowing and irresistible.
The stories in Lou Rowan's collection Sweet Potatoes are brilliantly
rendered in a mesh of grim and exuberantly funny shifts of highly
original tale-telling. The variety of characters are utterly real and
fascinatingly complex. Their daily actions and experiences offer a
mesmerizing picture of much in society that is false and outrageous
and yet all too forgiveably human. Rowan tunes up his one of a kind
narrative voice with resonances of Rabelais, Voltaire, and Mickey Spillane.
A Review: Sweet Potatoes by Lou Rowan
Patrizia Hayashi, From the Lou Rowan feature in Big Bridge
With incisive wit and a remarkable eye for the human condition, Lou Rowan weaves together a collection of short stories that will arouse laughter, nostalgia, and an occasional dose of pity. In Sweet Potatoes, the author lays his characters bare, digging into their psyches, presenting their foibles, and in doing so, holding up a mirror that dares the reader to recognize himself.
Through a series of cleverly sketched vignettes told in first person and third, Rowan takes us from the sexual awakening of pubescent boys to the angst of middle-aged men. Their stories resonate because they could be every man. Precisely this effect is achieved by Rowan’s habit of naming his characters a one-letter initial in the early stories of the collection. “L intended to marry his college sweetheart and that didn’t work, but after he dropped her she produced their son, who failed to interest him. He became president of his family’s company, which went south, his career with it, and his relatives, alleging improprieties, pursued him like balance sheet furies. ” In these first two lines of the story, L, Rowan brilliantly slices up and serves his character for our amusement and pleasure. He invites us to join him in on the joke, for surely we’ve known an L, an M or suffered as a G.
For all the humor that runs through the collection, there’s a thread of tragedy that offers a counterpoint—a note of dissonance, if you will, that pierces. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jack’s Ladder. The story begins with an unholy start as the protagonist Jack has his foul mood exacerbated by an even fouler day that has him walking out on his wife the next morning. It feels real. Passionate. And then Rowan turns the tables. We enter what should be the dream world to find ourselves in reality—a reality in which Jack and his wife painfully find their way back to one another after the death of their son. Poignant, heartwarming, because the seeds of hope are there for a new beginning. It’s a story that stayed with me long after I closed the covers of the book.
In the last story, The Accounting: A Mystery, Rowan departs from the themes that dominate the earlier shorts. Here, the author takes the reader on a madcap dash from NY to Chicago to the monasteries of Tibet. Told in multiple viewpoints, the characters form a complex knot of relationships that tangle with the Mafia, revenge, lovers spurned and lovers killed. Like the pieces of a puzzle, the twists and turns are laid out for the reader in seemingly random order to be plucked up and assembled in some fashion that makes sense. The characters are quirky and compelling, with the most likable ones being a recovering drug addict and his newfound love, the geek friend from his student days. Overall, this short drama is absorbing, amusing, and masterfully told.
Sweet Potatoes offers a rich variety of entertainment at a number of levels. Despite the brevity of the stories, Rowan’s use of description, introspection and dialog brings his characters to life in a way that’s hard to forget. Perhaps the author sums it up best when he says, “I love plot, character, surprise, love them.”
My Last Days
A very broad free-for-all of jokes in commerce with our wasted land and a Superman newly re-vealed as our Clarkie in new clothes. Fabulous and scurrilous.
Lou Rowan’s My Last Days takes us deep inside the American myth of Superman and Clark Kent where no prior version of our naturalized heroic savior’s ineradicable story has dared to go. Be prepared for a wild ride on the back of the man of steel’s poignant confessional autobiography into a satirical maelstrom of hilarity and moral outrage.
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH: LOU ROWAN’S MY LAST DAYS
James Tierney, From the Lou Rowan feature in Big Bridge
Scrooge stared back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude… “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city.
—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Every now and then the stunted adolescent experience of the occasional self-styled European intellectual will manifest itself in a dismissive and often petulant, even embarrassingly uninformed, one-off shrug of a commentary expressing his or her own ignorance of or inability to appreciate the real complexities of the many American cultures and cults, literary, political, popular or otherwise. The shallowness of the premises makes even sympathetic conclusions too bitter a pill for the native to swallow, and the most far gone of ex-patriots may discover in such a moment a suppressed chauvinism lurching up half dead from the spleen. Lou Rowan, American man, has, on the other hand, written a novel that far more than dismissing his nation’s cultural deposits, dumps the litter box at our feet just as if to say, “Can you smell it now?” My Last Days, in spite of betraying a petty Continental distaste for sport, comes by this critique along a more hard-won route than that of the casual euro-pundit, a journey best characterized as over-informed. And the burden of the over-informed, I think, is rapturous satire.
Like someone who has been in deep cover for a long time, Rowan speaks the language of the corporate world, that is to say the language of the political world, the art world, Hollywood, major American poetry, and the corporate world, better than its inventors. He knows the syntax, he’s got the speed, and he has mastered a startling number of permutations of the prefabricated phrasal components that supply the finite lexicon of the players, the bricks of their narrow bricolage. And who better to see through this wall and shove it off the edge of the planet than that hapless undercover journalist, Superman, the unsuspecting vessel of innocence Rowan has chosen to make his critique. Poor Superman.
Spurred to the autobiographical act by his publicist, the man of steel (and glass, we discover), has decided to take a closer look at his role in the society, and how he came to be there. He begins, in Kansas, as a sort of dim-witted Saposcat on the farm, and ends in the same place, but this time as a fugitive Clark Kent, adrift in remoter regions with his radicalized sidekick, James, ducking and covering in the high grasses from what we can only imagine is a rather worked-up Department of Homeland Security. What happens in between is a New York City mash-up of star culture success stories, generally enabled by the heroic efforts of Superman’s naive sense of justice, set alongside a few downers in the outer boroughs. These, Superman has some difficulty getting his head around, as strength, the power of flight, and x-ray vision don’t seem to fit the bill.
Rowan, who was once a student of Zukofsky and is now the editor of the distinguished Golden Handcuffs Review, is also retired from a career located vaguely within the complex of Wall Street finance, whatever and all that “Wall Street finance” may mean. His encapsulation and subsequent manipulation of the knowledge he acquired while ensconced not only on Wall Street but within its various adjunct New York societies has produced this breathless, unchecked 120-page maximalist economic satire. Superman aside, as Rowan’s riffs periodically push him, the novel, with great economy, moves through the various strata of the culture. It begins, innocently enough, as all Americans do, with the personal struggle, then on up to the tribal, the local, the regional, national and finally the neo-colonial worldwide enterprise of our national politics, culture and language. “Eviscerating” may be too easy a word here, unless one considers that in this case it would be meant no more metaphorically than is the book’s staging of the attempted rape of Lois Lane by two rather recognizable poets of national standing. It is a cutting, bloody book, as the rather ominous cover art foreshadows and the light, swift tone occasionally belies. The truly funny swoons of mock-ecstasy in earlier passages concerning the Broadway musical hit “Starved Into Happiness,” and the dry ironies of the remarkable rise of media mogul Rupert Murd, and the hilarious dismissal by Mayor Hussel of his grimly inadequate son give way eventually to the far more noxious swoons of the final paragraphs detailing a dystopic wonder of television programming that may while you have been reading this already have surpassed this most recent attempt to satirize it.
Rowan is right, as he does here and in his short-story collection Sweet Potatoes, to locate much of the political and general perversity of this country in its eternally adolescent sexual psyche. Clark Kent’s own development spotlights a point where he must make the false choice often presented to youngsters as to whether he shall be celibate or promiscuous. In My Last Days the point is rather roundly made that ours is a nation dominated by grown men who alternately claim to have never had an erection and to have had one now for sixteen hours straight, openly flaunting their endowment in office. Top-shelf marketing typically has its cake and eats it too. Many of Rowan’s adult characters are outfitted, some more sympathetically than others, with this same nagging undercurrent of brimming adolescent perversity, of a confused, vacated soul empty at the center and obscured in a dustcloud of self-important activity. The question of disastrous conflict is reduced to when and where, which is what gives Rowan’s narratives their particular uneasiness.
There are a growing number of writers out there who it seems are no longer able to finesse their opposition to the state of not only the state, but of the predominating literary and art cultures: to the state of perception itself. Chiasmus Press, publisher of My Last Days, and other small presses go very far out of their way to publish a few of them. It is all too easy to see the origins of the complaint, which emphasize a holisitic continuum between the different components of and variety of forces acting on the larger cultures. The self-censorship, or self-narrowing of the artistic imagination in America at some point achieved a threshold where one is now able to easily imagine that every viable enactor in art, science and thought is finally reduced (it may take some years) to a good solid position, with benefits, in a successful marketing firm, so-called or not. Some people see this as a desirable progression, and some people do not. My Last Days is not the quiet, rational insanity of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” but, looking in the same harrowing direction, it is more the flamboyantly overt Swiftian humor of outrage. In the end it is a small, too-fine-a-point-on-it spear chucked at a giant helium balloon bobbing and weaving its way down Madison Avenue.
Aside from the fact that humor is always an indication of hope, it is fair to say that My Last Days is a doggedly pessimistic, even cynical book, but one that is so ripe the reader is surprised to have encountered it only now. It puts into relief the absence of such open, deep satire from available American fiction, the sort of thing that dredges the dark bottom sludge of the bent psychology behind some of the most successful drivers of our currently exported cultural heritage. In this sense, it is tellingly reminiscent of moments in Soviet-era eastern European satires like Gombrowicz’s and Konwicki’s, Hašek’s and Hrabal’s. Like these, My Last Days is not speculative or fantastic fiction, it’s historical. It’s all true. You have probably already visited the Museum of Acceptable Modern Art and “Starved Into Happiness” is on the bus and rolling toward your local performing arts center this very evening. And they’re both going to cost you more than this book.
Big Bridge 12 (San Francisco), 2007. www.bigbridge.org