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Arts Angry young men

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An indispensable outsider voice returns in two new paperbacks

Alienated young men are not new to American literature—they were one of its driving forces in the 20th century, the legions bolstered by Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, Raymond Carver, and Hunter S. Thompson, to name a significant handful. Thompson, who shot himself in the Colorado mountains last winter, and Phillip Roth, who began with extreme adolescent angst and ended up in comfortable middle-class ambivalence, illustrate two possible trajectories for this common, creative, malaise, both concluding in a dead-end of sorts. Even at their nub ends, they nonetheless beat the hell out of Bret Easton Ellis’ pornographic rants and the host of Thompson and Carver imitators that littered the landscape in the ’80s and ’90s. If you found Don DeLillo stylistically taxing, Dave Eggers too cheeky, and Tom Wolfe arrogant, you were out of yang luck. The boys were in a funk. `Michael Chabon gets a bye here; he’s never really been alienated, Werewolves in Their Youth notwithstanding, but he’s a thoroughly enjoyable novelist.`

But just as chick lit and triumphal memoir seemed to be the 21st-century houses ascendant, signs began to emerge of an angry-young-male renaissance, which, along with a somewhat revitalized press, may be a sign that Americans are cutting loose from the opium of the masses: cheap goods and self-affirmation. At least that seems to be the hope of Los Angeles native Sesshu Foster, whose third novel, Atomik Aztex, combines Latin American magical realism with science-fiction for a story set in an alternate future. The Aztec empire has triumphed, running the world with ruthless, and

Atomik Aztex
By Sesshu Foster
City Lights
$15.95, 210 pages
ISBN: 0872864405

Kornwolf
By Tristan Egolf
Black Cat Books
$14, 379 pages
ISBN: 0802170161
psychotropically enhanced, efficiency. Beating hearts are sacrificed on the pyramids because the ritual results in a high standard of living for the ruling elite, and slavery is a linchpin of the economy.

If the analogy is a bit ham-handed, Foster’s vision of the Aztek empire battling Nazi Germany is inspired. For instance, on infiltration using “collective konsciousness” as a cloak: “Briefly I placed a mental picture of der Führer on the fly-specked wall in the back office of my mind, attempting to rouse some resentment against Jews, Turks, or homoseXuals, and least likely of the lot, I attempted to develop a hankering for a cuisine that consisted of bland, fatty foods, such as sausage, pastry or cabbage.” The result is a clever psychodrama of false consciousness and misidentification, brought into stark relief by the visions that torment our Aztek protagonist: He dreams that he is a “slave” in a meat-packing plant in Southern California.

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The publishing industry describes Foster’s style as “punk sci-fi and kitchen-sink realism.” Which means Atomik Aztex reads like Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, plunging ahead like a runaway freight train, relying on stylistic quirks to clue you in that a speaker or scene has changed. It also means you get some self-aggrandizing attitude, a la: “This is a work of fiction. Readers looking for accurate information on Nahua and Mexica peoples or the Farmer John meat packing plant in the City of Vernon need to read nonfiction” (emphasis original). Spare me, komrade. Besides, underneath Foster’s post-Carver posturing, traces of the author’s time at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop still echo.

Fortunately for Foster this means that clumsy sentences are rare, which is not the case in Kornwolf, the latest and last book from Tristan Egolf, who died prematurely at age 33 last spring. Egolf sometimes reads like Dashiell Hammett stuffed into a dress: “It wasn’t as a journalist that Owen got caught up in traffic en route to the Heritage House. In theory and practice he was no longer flogging his wares in the field of reporting. The tapestry falling together at last would find no place in public print.” But, like Atomik Aztex, Kornwolf’s tale of a human-beast wreaking havoc in Amish country contains the best elements of the alienated-male genre: suppressed emotions erupting on the surface, spectacularly illuminating the hypocrisy and injustice that make up the thick crust of our common ground. The relative justness of society, Egolf and Foster remind us, depends on which rung of the ladder you cling to.

By Elaine Wolff


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