On, on brief candle


Review of The Woman of the Void (The Kota Series) by Sunshine Somerville
Paul Xylinides


On, on brief candle

Highly focused. Succinct. Precocious and fearless in its conception and in its confidence of wielding the level of artistry whose spell produces the magical pact for a willing suspension of disbelief. Thankfully so since the author’s strategy of pushing the story along at times comes at the expense of satisfying the reader’s appetite for further detail. One doesn’t want to get bogged down, she might with some justice argue. And, don’t get in the way of my creative process! – she might further declaim. Quite. This is not to say that she fails to assure the reader of an attentive presence. As with “The wind blowing in off the sea was gentler and hardly noticed.” It is the last “hardly noticed” in our literature that promises forever to undermine any attempts to have a computer program replace the need for the human touch.

This kind of convincing moment gives the sense of a pleasing and delicate immanence that the rigours of the story line elsewhere do not betray. Charm me! is the reader’s constant demand and The Woman of the Void does so until its abrupt end. It appears that one must avail oneself of the rest of the series in order to avoid unnecessary frustration. The evidence of this particular instalment persuades why not.

The Woman of the Void, A Kota Short by Sunshine Somerville ©2015.


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José Saramago’s Sexy Punctuation

Ricardo Reis



José Saramago’s

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis


Paul Xylinides

Forgive me, José Saramago, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, for what most interested me in your novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis: its punctuation. It is not that I have anything disparaging to say about the rest of it or am exercising discretion as one might when praising a fat lady’s bikini in lieu of what the apparel cannot hope to conceal. I have no dietary recommendations lurking and fighting their restraints in the back of my mind. And so do not take it as a slight that I am not particularly moved to comment on matters more literary and how these speak to your arguably more substantive writerly concerns. To me it is not a small matter that your work moves me to focus rather upon your strategy of commas and periods with no recourse to the other available marks of punctuation. The advancement of the possibilities of literary expression is what it accomplishes, moving the reader to greater alertness (why, indeed, can one not write, as do you, Unknown to him he has a sign stuck to his back, a paper dangling from a safety pin, Beast of burden for sale, no one has asked the price so far, even though they taunt him as they pass, Are you such a beast that you don’t feel your burden. Or. To exemplify again. You said the reason you didn’t come back was that you were annoyed, It’s true, Annoyed with me, Not so much with you, what has annoyed me and left me feeling weary is all this going back and forth, this tug of war between memory that pulls and oblivion that pushes, a useless contest, for oblivion and forgetting always win in the end. No quotation marks, no dashes, semi-colons, question marks or unnecessary full stops, all these implicit in the sense of what is said, quite like how we comprehend each other when we speak, quite like our distant literary forebears who were oral, think Homer for one stand-out.) Both reader and yourself feel to be more and more liberated, sensible of the mind’s operation, you become intimate with yourself and we with you. In addition is the inextricable thrill we have in the increasing claims of creative freedom and new territories that await. Let me offer my gratitude for the faith that you have in your readers’ capacity to intuit your scribed intentions without flags and semaphores, your trust in intelligence. To further your enterprise, for this reader, at least, a mere few spaces between thought and its qualifications would work. As for capitalization, not unlike a bikini upon a shapely form, it designates beauty and, if not wholly necessary, should remain.


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Short Verses & Other Curses (Haiku, Senryū, & Other Poetic, Artistic, & Photographic Miscellany) by Kurt Brindley


Short Verses




Kurt Brindley’s

Short Verses & Other Curses
(Haiku, Senryū, & Other Poetic, Artistic, & Photographic Miscellany)


Paul Xylinides




A Warrior Poet’s Hard-Won Epiphanies


Self-made and/or naturally insight-endowed, Kurt Brindley has the soul of a poet; further, he has the soul of a warrior poet. He makes passing reference to the martial tradition that has also been a part of his life in the poem “If I Were A Samurai:”

I would know

when to bow
and when to ignore
when to speak
and when to be silent

when to eat
and when to fast
when to think
and when to meditate
when to advance
and when to hold
when to strike
and when to parry
when to kill
and when to die

All writers — the serious and the not-so-much — inevitably find themselves in a battle, as often as not Biblical in proportions, for the human soul, their own as it happens. (The New Testament’s words along these lines — Ephesians 6:12 — are more reminder than news.) Although drawing upon the culture of ancient Japan, the lines also resonate with those of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Certainly, the outcome of this inner struggle determines how writers view themselves or what they have made of themselves by means of their literary endeavours. They have dared to partake of forbidden fruit whose concentrated energies fuse words together in a manner guaranteed to produce light endlessly in recipient minds.

Here is what is at risk when one trespasses upon this discipline:

the moment is nigh
when once self-evident truths
succumb to madness

Writers task themselves to pursue and to lay down truth that is hard-won in the full confidence that it will “receive its pardon.”

what must be endured
before the blossom unfolds
heaven only knows

Here the epiphany has come through relentless struggle; its visitation is in the nature of grace.

Paradoxically, the greater the responsibility one assumes, whereby it claims to embrace all, the lighter becomes the burden and the meditative being can declare it to be lyrical in experience.

nay, the setting sun
’tis we, a reflective we
who settles the day

The cynic may argue that it is all a matter of raw assertion — empty metaphysic — but a literary Coriolanus will flash his body’s reminders of battles fought to the incredulous:

the blood turns not red
until the wound has occurred
truths are bound by scars

And, no matter the devastation,

still, the sun rises
still, the wind blows, the trees sway
still, I live to thrive

Giving voice to our most indomitable attitudes of being, the poet has strengthened and enriched us, and, sometimes, simple logic leads to profound reflection:

If we are all of the same matter
Then mustn’t we matter all the same

     In addition to his warrior spirit, it is a Rabelaisian welcome that has made Kurt Brindley’s web-site www.kurtbrindley.com a much trafficked gathering spot. He never fails to rejoice even in complaint, giving every evidence that he knows what could be instead of what is. “’Tis the warden found within/That keeps us from our freedom.”

“Meet Me In The Courtyard/Where The Blood No Longer Flows” — one of the final poems in this most admirable collection — speaks (the reviewer will presume to say) to the spirit of transcendence that ever renders humanity “sacred in our time.” Our time is no different than any other in being one of bloody execution.

The one regret that came from having downloaded this book is that a hard copy would have enabled going back and forth with ease and delight, choosing and balancing poem against poem. It is frustrating to be unable to satisfy more gracefully the need to experience again and again the individual contents that have given pleasure, insight, and the companionship of profound thought of a type that can only be poetically rendered. As the Bard himself would say,

when all is perfect
less even just one thin thread
nothing is perfect

That’s the trouble with all things virtual. So far.

Short Verses & Other Curses
(Haiku, Senryū, & Other Poetic, Artistic, & Photographic Miscellany)



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Fade to Black by Tim McBain & LT Vargus

Review of Fade to Black

(Book 1 in the Awake in the Dark series)

by Paul Xylinides


Indie writers par excellence

Who’d a’ thunk it?

The joke about the camel is that it’s a horse designed by a committee, and one tends to approach a multi-authored work with the trepidation of riding a humped beast; however, while there is sardonic humour aplenty in Fade to Black, co-authored by Tim McBain and LT Vargus, the ride turns out to be as on the back of a well-trained steed that can pivot and curvet to the occasion.

A tarot card image of a hanging man recurs at the start of everyone of Jeff Grobnagger’s seizures and the hanging man is ‘yours truly’. Apparently his ritualistic confrontations with Death have meaning beyond himself and he finds that he has become a person of interest for some local cults with self-serving metaphysical paradigms. Similar to all things tarot, meaning comes from perspective. In addition someone’s daughter has disappeared and, naturally, the parent would like Jeff to employ his nascent other-dimensional talents to return her to his parental embrace.

For the conversational style to work with me, it has to be smart, economical, and thoughtful. Here it is all of these in this saucily contrived escapism — with all the excitement that a dumpster-diving, untreated epileptic, archetypal reluctant hero can provide as he attempts to escape yet another death having its way with him. Wait, that’s in his mind, or is it entirely? This protagonist submits all his life choices to a cool escapist philosophy that fits well with our socially estranged, entertainment armed, manufactured times where the reality of death is less real — much less real — than the reality of our mind’s fuelled distraction/pleasure zones.

A sardonic noir tone is not without an insouciant grin:

“A man puts his arm around a woman on the sidewalk across the street. She nuzzles against him, like he can keep her out of the rain.
“Good luck with that.”

And is well in line with a necessarily detached philosophy:

“It feels like the world is all one way streets that run away from you.”

“I don’t save damsels in distress.”
Grunge talk is nothing without a satisfyingly epiphanic backdrop:

“Maybe life isn’t some grand narrative with a spectacular ending like you might want. It’s a series of moments. They might seem too random to add up to mean something huge, but they each mean the world on their own. [E]veryone of these occasions is a world within a world. A little sliver of time where the doors to your imagination open up and anything is possible. You don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow. You just are for a while.”

Tone is all:

“”It [the pad Thai] tastes like a dish of really good food mixed with about a quarter cup of garbage juice.’”

With a variation on the sentiment that “most people lead lives of quiet desperation,” the protagonist describes himself as one of those people whose “physical existence is like an injury they can never recover from.”

Maybe one of this writing duo is responsible solely for the punctuation, since the seamlessness of the composition is such that it is difficult to detect more than one voice.

No complaints with figures of speech like this:

“The nervousness builds as we cross the fresh blacktop, my stomach flopping around in my gut like a furious rainbow trout stranded on a muddy bank somewhere.”

A final whiplash delivers the coup de gras:

“Heat reflects from the surface of the ground, trying to smother us before we can go eat this food. It’d be a mercy.”

Where there is a fine eye for detail the familiar reads as new and fresh:

“The sun’s descent hits then points where everything looks like a dimmed half gray version of itself, which is heightened in certain areas by all of the shade the trees cast.”

While cults of a various order threaten, they remain at a distance and allow space for the seizure-prone Jeff Grobnagger to indulge in introspective activity that somehow connects him to them. The delicate self-analysis advances his character’s sensibility without wearing on the reader’s patience:

“Maybe I’m not so awful. Isolating the idea world from the physical world, I start to think maybe romance is still a possibility for me, and I’m just psyching myself out, yeah?
“And then I catch my reflection in the mirror, and I watch the worlds collide. When I look in my face, all of that positivity collapses like touching moth wings when they’re still wet.”

Deft touches abound:

“A photo of Amity as a child stares up at me, the lower half of her face obscured by a new smile shaped from shattered glass.”

One complaint in the editing — a huge chunk at the back-end of chapter 18 just repeats itself (I blame whoever’s doing the punctuation).

This review ends with the 1st volume in the series. On its basis, readers can safely invest what the price of a latte will get for them in the rest. For some aficionados of the written word, the transcendent effect of a single well-tuned sentence long outlasts the sense-filtered experience of a cup of java and, in the work of McBain and Vargus, the rewards apparently go on and on without the punishment of over-indulgence but, as in the best of all things transcendent, with the taste still present — as from the bean that the writers praise for being “weirdly acidic and bright, but good as hell.”

Is it easy or hard to be a writing duo? Who but they can say? However, when the results are seamless, the question is beside the point while leaving the two authors to divvy up the congratulations between themselves.

By the by, they also write a great “what is the meaning of sex?” scene. — “we are more like animals and more like spiritual beings at the same time somehow” — Read it and compare notes.


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The Drawing Lesson by Mary E. Martin

The Drawing Lesson
Review of The Drawing Lesson

by Paul Xylinides


Here the Literary Is Numinous

“If we have a sense of the mystery of life, we know there is far more than just this apparent world. But whatever lies beyond eludes our grasp. We sense its presence, but cannot rationally understand it — much less prove its existence. It teases us at the fringes of our perception.”

Multiple strands weave the tapestry of this book. To draw one of these from the finely woven whole …

The darkest narrative thread in The Drawing Lesson addresses the direction of the arts — specifically visual — that stubbornly persists from the beginnings of the past century. Mary Martin has a quarrel to pick not only with the claims of relevance but also with the assertions of cutting edge significance in so-called modernist art that has grown rather long in the tooth since figures such as Duchamp and the art world of the time proffered a moue to the aesthetic achievements of the ages and, in his case, came up with a soiled urinal, and then a moustache and goatee upon the Mona Lisa in their stead. Today’s touring giant rubber duck represents the perhaps inevitable infantilization of such soulless efforts. A case can, of course, be made that the challenges posed to artists by the incalculable horrors of the previous century could very well have them adopt the foetal position or, taking the human spirit into account, the teenager’s rebellious angst — one of the more enduring cultural achievements both in film and music of these times, not to mention in literary works such as The Catcher In The Rye. On this latter note of the verbal arts, the Biblical flood or plague of vampire and zombie novels would bear witness to the present self-indulgence in the writing world. It would seem that the powers of creation can but quail before a century of holocausts German, genocides Cambodian, Rwandan, and nuclear — to name just a few.

In a world where anything goes, it will happen that some carefully thought out anything might very well hit the mark with lasting force. Witness the Chinese performance artist who covered himself in honey and fish oil. Here I am, he proclaimed to his government, willing to feed these humble flies in this wretched toilet and yet you will do nothing in face of the nation’s millions of female infanticides.

It is something of an irony that the hero of The Drawing Lesson — referred to as “the artist”, whose art is firmly in the traditions of the past (“the Rembrandt light … seems to come from within the painting itself rather than from outside”), wins England’s coveted Turner prize. Work recognizably in the spirit and accomplishment of the eponymous William Turner has of late received little acknowledgment of this kind. Stretched canvas no longer proves worthy of the prize. The artist’s nemesis Rinaldo, whose conceptual work again ironically is apt today to be favoured but in the novel is not — feels himself overlooked for the sake of yet another rehashing of the lyrical and “numinous” — haystacks and sunlight — whose homiletic bias present so-called rational times had long felt to have given the lie to.

“For Rinaldo, only the inner world of the mind, independent of the visual, was worthy of exploration. Wainwright’s winning the Turner was a joke — a slap in the face to all contemporary artists.”

“[He] would have said that those forms, that light meant nothing — they were nothing but the random product of millions of cells dancing a meaningless dance in his brain.”

Rinaldo proves, unexpectedly, to be something of a salvation for the artist who recognizes something in his antagonist’s nihilistic passion that he must deal with in his own life (“the collision of … serenity and horror”) and that his art as well needs to engage for him to move forward.

“Emotion, he thought, is what makes us human.”

Ms. Martin’s bold reintroduction of concepts of the divine and one’s muse into the making of art is a welcome change in our secular times. In the words of the artist,

“‘If you are open and believe that the divine infuses everything in the cosmos, you see this light everywhere and in everything.’”

“‘Some quality, an essence, within the muse is like a candle flickering in the dark, illuminating everything in those rooms.’”

“‘… if you still retain some sense of mystery and imagination, then you are certain there is something beyond this external, dimly perceived world. That is the other. Sometimes you find it in yourself, sometimes in another person, and sometimes just out in our daily world or in a dream.’”

“‘The only proof that it exists is the fact we spend our lives seeking it. It’s that longing, that yearning that is the inspiration for all creativity.’”

One might even detect the nihilistic and the numinous performing a delicate dance within human consciousness:

“… was there any single truth or simply a myriad of individual momentary truths? Perhaps life was only a fragile tissue of conjecture.”

A single experience of the numinous can prove sufficient to guide a life and, eventually, redeem it as comes with the discovery of a few lines written by a recently deceased father who preferred to devote himself to his roses than show an interest in his writer son:

“When I was young, I saw in a dream
A golden castle covered with roses,
Not in the sky, but deep in the woods, here on earth.
It told me the meaning of all life and the universe.
Tears ran down my face — for it was only a glimpse
Which never came again.”

In addition to these metaphysics, Martin can write one hell of an uncomfortable dinner scene, in Venice no less.

It might be argued that Rinaldo is a straw man easily knocked down and that many instances of conceptual art have great significance. While this might be so, it is also true that much of it produces the opposite effect. Today, a used couch found on Craigslist is deemed worthy of exhibition. An artist’s soiled, detritus-strewn bed commands million-dollar figures. These instances plucked from a self-replenishing harvest go far beyond giving pause. In the general public and among many in the arts, eyes roll and stomachs churn. Catch the response on video and submit it to the Turner committee!

The Drawing Lesson accomplishes its push-back against nihilism by having the artist not commit apostasy when faced with his own limitations and not refute personal vision when another’s concept offers little more than a scrawl across its artefact. Instead, he engages and thereby adds another tenet to his quiver — “Only by enraging the status quo could one ever create new art.”

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The Distant Sound of Violence by Jason Greensides

The Distant Sound of Violence

Review of The Distant Sound of Violence

by Paul Xylinides


Philosophic and Marathon-Paced

“… a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy”

(William Butler Yeats, “Among School Children”)

When the logic of a narrative remains hidden, the reader must have faith in its ring of truth and allow its compulsions to lead one to what is embedded and finally realized. An explanation soon comes for the opening line — “You can’t change the size of fire.” — in Jason Greensides’s marathon-paced novel The Distant Sound of Violence. Apparently the renderings of explosion and fire in early films could not for technical reasons match the true proportions of the depicted catastrophe. Equally, in life, how can a scream, an inexplicable loss, a singular act of violence of whatever kind do justice to what is actually taking place? Can the horrific sound of even a nuclear explosion give any idea as to the enormity of destruction present and future? Those characters who come into contact with Greensides’s protagonist who refuses to accommodate himself to a child’s unexplained disappearance identify little more than your run-of-the-mill street person as he apparently has become. The can of spray paint that he wields does nothing to cause him to stand out even less the years that he is a familiar figure haunting the City of London’s boroughs. One friend from the past, however, does remember his character and his philosophical turn of mind. He also recalls the conflicts of their early lives and on his return to London finds that Nathan had abandoned his life at a time of its greatest promise of fulfillment.

“You can never change the fundamental aspects of the world, the universe, or existence.”

Nathan is that exceptional individual who chooses to sacrifice himself and even those about him (who perhaps in the Bard’s words must needs “shuffle” for themselves) rather than accept the unacceptable. What he comes to discover is that a unifying apparently obdurate principle underlying existence as he perceives it does not preclude an ongoing variety of expression both for good and for ill. Some flowers will bloom in short time while others may take years to blossom. The poisonous and the beneficial coexist. Further lines from the philosophic musings of William Butler Yeats’s “Among School Children” come to mind:

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

Somewhere on a distant planet and long ago, this reviewer seems to recall something that was said of Dostoevsky and how, to be successful, a novel requires an overarching philosophy. It is especially in this respect that Greensides’s work merits ultimate recognition. As with the great Russian writer it is not circumstances that govern a character’s destiny but the ideas and views brought to them. Responsibility is all and determinative. In the end, Nathan shows how one’s actions will cause philosophy, against all reason, unexpectedly to blossom.

Also in a similar manner to Dostoevsky, Greensides comfortably populates his novel with characters in all social positions — from the down-and-out to the police, from ordinary workers and run-of-the-mill bad-asses to respectable citizenry all the while delivering up the hard-scrabble streets in the intimate manner that comes from imagination and familiarity.

What the reader immediately acknowledges are the deft and insightful touches, whereby characters appear in diverting, often sensual focus:

“Taylor’s eyes began twinkling in mischief, her tongue plunging into the side of her too-wet mouth. Evidently Taylor was undergoing the ravages of a new thought.”


“She folded her arms and gazed at each of us in turn — those button-like eyes luminous in the bleak London twilight.”

An uncommon knack for bringing characters to life gives entrance straight into the world of the novel, in other words, right where one ought to be:

“Nathan took off his mask and tapped it against his thigh to generate thought.”


“Nathan felt his groin begin to stir — not at her distress, but at the way her beautiful shoulders shook like autumnal leaves in a breeze.”

The fluidity of the lines displays an enviable ease of composition whatever hard work or not may be responsible for it. Rather than feel like a neophyte’s first essay, this novel gives mature promise of more to come of at least equal order, although in the image making strength builds upon strength:

“Nathan dipped into his shirt pocket and pulled out an antique silver locket on a chain. It was oval with a raised, floral design, and he’d had ‘Stephanie’ engraved on the back. It looked impressive, particularly against the gloomy backdrop of the bridge and the damp, rotting leaves in the gutter.”

Effortless brush strokes deliver prose with a refreshing avoidance of the idealistic:

“Nathan’s hair was dripping with moisture and swept over to one side, yet sun-dried and sticking up at the back. The patchy stubble lining his jowls were making him look like some trashy convict. His eyes were haggard and squinty and brown-stained beneath.”

Or show how the ideal is very much in the everyday:

“… the front teeth sloping inward gave her a look of innocence and someone with no concept of the devastating effect they had on the world.”

It is a self-effacing quality that gives heightened utility to the meditative images:

“It was late afternoon, the sky a lush mixture of violet indigo and amber, streaked with wispy light clouds like campfire smoke.”


“Her Afro hair was unkempt, all knotted and matted like clumps of grass on a neglected piece of common land; her thick lips were cracked and parched; her brown skin an unhealthy hue, like a teabag left out too long.”

Aesthetic impression soars with a writer who is intent on getting things just right and, as with any worthwhile lived philosophy, where is the long read when patience continually nourished arrives at the promised raison d’être?


Please feel free to read and review

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When Everything Feels like the Movies by Raziel Reid

When Everything

When Everything Feels like the Movies

Review by Paul Xylinides


Review of When Everything Feels like the Movies by Raziel Reid

by Paul Xylinides

From Intimations of Literary Immortality to Recollections of Marlon Brando

Sometimes this book reviewer’s inclination is to throw up his hands and simply quote the entire work under consideration. Since that simply will not do, copious references will have to serve instead as a means of securing a potential reader’s commitment to adding Raziel Reid’s novel to their inner library. Winner of Canada’s Governor-General’s Award (2014) for Children’s Literature, When Everything Feels like the Movies transcends age categories in the same manner as does Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and it also marks a new level of maturity in today’s literary culture of a significance perhaps last seen with the judicial acceptance of Lady Chatterley’s Lover of all books. Reid’s language displays an immediate insouciance that carries throughout the narrative and is its identifying literary tone:

“I would’ve gone down for a pair of Louboutins (I think they call that ‘head over heels’), but the closest I ever got was kissing the feet of celebrities in tabloid magazines.
“My mother’s closet was basically a sex shop. It was full of costumes and shoes which she wore to work. That’s ‘work’ in the original sense, although she werked for a living.”

Easy comparisons to a free-thinking, disillusioned Holden Caulfield don’t serve here. Where The Catcher in the Rye’s hero distances himself in the face of a lack of authenticity in the adult world, Reid’s young transsexual protagonist effectively engages and disrupts those about him in complete disregard of the dangers to himself. People do not so much posture in their lives as inhabit limitations that he refuses to accept for himself:

“… My mom was in the kitchen, burning pancakes. She’d just gotten home from work and was still dressed like a slutty nurse.”

“The thing with my family was that we always seemed the most abnormal when we were doing the normal things.”

His unrelenting strategy is to insist upon the prerogatives of his own consciousness and, if this be cinematic in its conception, then so be it. He is merely precocious in his understanding that “all the world is a stage.” And there are more than enough villains where society’s regard is so antithetical, even annihilating, to his true nature. Any reader who has enjoyed an iota of awareness in their youth as to the various straitjackets intended to bring one into social conformity should recognize this coping mechanism. Every romantic, rebellious soul knows that the world is to be created through the sheer force of imagination:

“I loved the graveyard. It was filled with so many flowers — it was like the Elysian Fields. Whenever I was there. I’d imagine I was a god walking around in ten-inch hooker keels. Or, depending on my mood, just a hooker.”

“I walked to school, but imagined I was in L.A. I turned the bungalows with snow piled on decaying shingles into Beverly Hills mansions … I zigzagged down the sidewalk, slipping on ice and pretending it was the Walk of Fame.”

Distinct from Salinger’s hero and his contempt for the phoney, and in order to be true to himself, Jude Rothesay finds freedom in whatever manner that presents to his talent for artifice. A film always offers up the good and the bad. Its very inclusiveness validates and its imperatives provide a philosophy:

“I loved lies because when you’re a lie, you’re anything, you’re everything.”

He is hardly alone among his competitive peers in the effort to make sense of and not to yield that essential narrative wildness of human nature however reckless is its youthful expression:

“Angela took Polaroids because she thought they made her bohemian, which is the same reason why she smoked cigarettes and had unprotected sex.”

“She wore glossy red lipstick that made her lips look juicy, like she had just sucked on a tampon, which I’m pretty sure she did once just to get her YouTube channel more views.”

So-called anomalous persons in the human community, who have a stronger sense of what life has handed to them, become easy targets when they threaten the consensus of what isn’t right and doesn’t fit. The transsexual Jude Rothesay does not compromise the space that he occupies in others’ consciousness however antagonistic this might be:

“I wanted them to hate me; hate was as close to love as I thought I’d ever be.”

Readers will find elegant symbolism and sharply rendered images:

“Blood streaked down my face like I’d been punctured by my crown of thorns as I lay upon a spike of asphodels.”

His is not a phase that will eventually pass but an inborn sense of himself:

“All I wanted for Christmas was a sleep mask, but my grandma said Santa thought I was already too dramatic.”

Whatever the violence that comes to him, he turns it to his imaginative advantage and remains free and untouched in the consciousness of the world he has created for himself:

“Blood dripped from my nose, giving me red geisha lips. I didn’t feel the pain. I just felt the silk kimono that in my head I was wearing, with its obi trailing behind me as I ran. The wind whistling in my ears was like the strings of the shamisen. I was running for my life, but in my mind I was dancing like I was available for the night.”

In a TV interview (CBC News — The National), Reid exhibited rightful dismay at charges of possible pornographic intent. This reviewer could find no such instances. Rather a raw honesty informed every page of this narrative especially toward the young and socially disenfranchised:

“I could Facebook stalk Luke Morris. He still hadn’t accepted my friend request. I jerked off to my favourite picture of him which he’d posted from his family’s cabin during the summer. He was standing on a dock, and his swim trunks were wet. If you looked closely, you could see the outline of his crotch. That did it everyday. Usually more than once.”

If the author’s depiction of consummated homosexual love reprehensibly turns on the reader, then he/she is already a sick puppy. Here is the most extreme instance of Reid’s graphic flourishes whose cool flatness of expression does not diminish but, at a critical juncture, sustains the insouciant tone of the whole:

“If my asshole hadn’t been brimming with his spit, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Shocking, yes, but one would be mistaken to ascribe a puerile intent to what is humorous and, in its succinct attention to detail, disarmingly literary. “Brimming” would be le mot juste, n’est-ce-pas?

If anything, the young hero’s assertions of the self are inspiring while at the same time they bring recollections of the attitudinizing Marlon Brando in so many of his films such as The Wild Ones or On the Waterfront:

“When I came to, the park was empty, and the blood was pooling in my nostrils. I told myself it was a performance, and I was up for an award — I was up for all of them. I tried to stand to make my acceptance speech but got dizzy and fell back down.”


“When I looked back up at my reflection, everything was blurred. I batted my eyes and tried to give my best face, but it was so faded, I looked like a grainy paparazzi shot. I punched the mirror and the glass cracked, falling to my feet like lost scenes.”

Final words to the author when interviewed:

“I’m not promoting a culture, I’m depicting one — and I’m doing it with the graphic language that culture uses, and with the themes that culture is consumed with: fame, drugs, sex, and selfies.”

“For my generation, a (Facebook) Like has replaced physical warmth and affection. This has created a nihilistic society obsessed with ‘instafame’ and instant gratification. As a result, youth are facing a deeper isolation than ever before. I wrote this story so that readers can understand lost teenagers like my narrator Jude Rothesay.”


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Dismantle The Sun by Jim Snowden


Dismantle The Sun by Jim Snowden

Review by Paul Xylinides


The Deus Is Neither Ex Machina Nor In Machina

“Someone had to die for Hal Nickerson to live in the house that he and his wife Jodie bought for a song seven years ago.” (p.7)

So begins this dry-toned, cool, and detached novel with a line and a sentiment that prove to be something of a mantra for its main protagonist and a lynchpin refrain for the narrative arc. In the world of nature — in the world of man — something has to die for something else to live. Some persons — the Nickersons — include this in their ample proof of the non-existence of a beneficent Creator, while others — the fundamentalists — attribute the state of the cosmos to original and ongoing sin. Both take it all very personally. Hal Nickerson’s atheism in conjunction with that of his wife informs all of his sensibility while providing a certain distance from the most basic issues of life and death, love and hatred.

As rational nonbelievers they try to live as much in accord with the laws of nature as they perceive them. Their aforementioned house had been designed in the clean spare fashion of the architects Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright:

“The cold inhumanity of Bauhaus fit well with Lloyd Wright’s desire to build in harmony with nature because Upper Michigan was a frozen despairing waste six months out the year.” (p.8)

Hal is, however, less enamoured of their choice than is his wife who was responsible for much of his intellectual liberation from a fulminating preacher parent (“away from the One True Faith” – p.17). Not without some trepidation he also yields when, laid low with a fatal disease and in an apparent bow to human biological needs, she sets up a liaison for him with a female acquaintance. Absent an emotional component, her strategy proves ineffectual (“She wore some kind of perfume, I think. I’ve got all the windows open trying to get it out.” – p.12). What raises his libido is a more immediate and youthful promise of satisfaction as seen in this example of accomplished prose:

“A thin young woman just inside the doorway wriggled out of her drab grey parka as Botticelli’s Venus might have if Botticelli had lived out his productive years in Upper Michigan. This auburn-haired temptation wore a brown threadbare sweater and blue jeans; she was like the Hope Diamond wrapped in butcher paper.” (p.29)

When he does fall in love with one of his students who is, ironically, immersed in the belief system of her own fundamentalist father, both Hal and his wife Jodie find that they are confronting existential issues with little more than theoretical assertion:

“We are a product of our minds. We’re what our minds do. It’s probably worthwhile to try seeing things that way.” (p.184)

“Jodie chuckled softly, ‘And you say you lack dignity. To think I’m afraid of a life without you. Who the hell are we, Hal? Can you please tell me who we are?” (p.323)

On more than one occasion Hal poses the same question to himself, the most climactic being when caught in flagrante delicto with his young student:

“His life was in danger from a fat man in pajamas who seemed to be deciding who he’d like to kill first. These things did not happen to the Hal Nickerson he knew or recognized. He must be someone else. Who am I, he asked, that the world talks to me this way? (p.309)

A work such as this — replete with ideas, and drawing upon a broad range of literary and philosophical references — would perhaps do well in places to heed the poet Blake’s advice regarding the folly of generalization and take more care to avoid statements such as the following:

“To wish someone long life was to wish despair upon them.” (p.74)

This sentiment might be understandable if one were, say, no more than a student of Shakespeare’s tragedies — particularly the demented world of a Lear — and somehow have missed the redemptive perspectives of a Leontes (The Winter’s Tale) or a Prospero (The Tempest), fashioned in the Bard’s ultimate maturity. Snowden’s erudition is not narrow. The human spirit alone deserves more.

At one point in the story’s unfolding of Hal’s sensibility, we are told,

“The degree to which his attitude changed with his blood sugar level was one of the first things to convince him that his consciousness wasn’t separate from his body.” (p.105)

With this interconnectedness, the question remains to be addressed as to the implications of the reverse. It would seem, as Hal falls out of love with his dying wife, that only one answer is possible, and it comes as a kind of revelation — however secular — when something other than material intervention brings his wife back yet again from the brink of death. She shows little sympathy for his having placed his affections elsewhere — apparently something other than pure biological necessity is at work for both of them:

“… I need you in the same way I need oxygen. You are the only person who could ever break my heart, and while my mother thinks I owe my life to prayer, I think I owe my life to you.” (p.300)

This is not unlike the experience visited upon Shakespeare’s romance figures whose relationship to their children (Perdita in The Winter’s Tale and Miranda in The Tempest) transforms their tragic circumstance.

Ironically Hal finds himself in the same dilemma as his fundamentalist parent who says at one point about his second wife,

“I care more for that woman … the one you called my whore, than I could for a thousand of you.” (p.225)

Hal thinks similarly of his own new passion:

“The same burning hand that wrote mene mene tekel on a wall wrote this on every atom of every molecule of every chromosome in every cell of his body.” (p.157)

Suggestive of just how much believers and nonbelievers have in common, he often has recourse to this kind of biblical reference or religious terminology in order to describe his experiences (“… It was not a force that could be resisted without terrible damage to the soul — Hal hated to be mystical about it but could think of no secular way of expressing the idea.” — p.255) Both camps find it impossible to entertain a relationship with someone not possessing similar views. Neither seems to quite understand a universe of complete freedom one of whose infinite possibilities may very well be the creation — “invention” — or discovery of a human soul:

“The thing most fearsome about death was that it threatened to erase all we knew and all we were. It was this fear that led to the invention of the soul in the first place.” (p.106)

Is it fear alone or do we feel that promise within ourselves? Is this the greatest challenge that drives us as a species? Despite all our learning and advances, each individual, it appears, needs to start at the beginning:

“‘I’m trying to figure out who I am,’ Hal said.” (p.166)

At times Hal comes close to endorsing a metaphysical sensibility in addition to his rational paradigms:

“They lived … as a universe of two, and as long as that was so, every lunatic word ever spoken in support of mad passion was as sensible as Euclid’s most delicate proofs.” (p.169)


“A man’s life is a closed system, subject to the laws of thermodynamics and a guaranteed victim of entropy in all its loves and interests.” (p.252)

He labours under the assumption that a God would have created a different kind of universe:

“A while back he’d read a story of a star in Pegasus that stripped its innermost planet of 10,000 tons of surface material and atmosphere per day.” (p.305)

Snowden sprinkles his character’s bleak reflections with what is always redemptive — humour especially in the darkest moments:

“‘Things could be better,’ Hal took a bite. It tasted so good he felt instant depression at the knowledge that the universe, his life, and this sandwich were all finite, ‘This is a good sandwich’.”

The title Dismantle The Sun comes, of course, from Auden’s famous poem of loss “Stop all the clocks …” also quoted in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. However, in both movie and novel, the bereaved do find that they can love again. The nature of the love itself will have to answer what this imports for life’s greater issues. In a desperate attempt to restore the feelings that have died in the face of his wife’s long-drawn demise, Hal acts in recollection of his father’s words:

“‘Son, you just make the gestures and the feelings take care of themselves. The spirit just comes over you.’ Hoping that for once his father knew what he was talking about, Hal grabbed Jodie’s frail, bony hand and clasped it tight.” (p.323)

It is always something of a mismatch when intellectuals critique the fundamentalist religious hucksters in society who maintain patently refutable positions. The phenomenon is not unlike watching an adult stoop to argue with a child as to the non-existence of Santa Claus. In the end, of course, intellectual might cannot undermine the human drive to transcendence whether its ultimate means be through science, religion, or a combination of the two. Really the only excuse for the Richard Dawkins, Bill Mahers, and Julian Barnes of the world for their publicly engaging in this manner would be in order to dislodge such archaic beliefs from the substantial hold they maintain over large segments of society. In a parallel to the Pauline injunction,

“Put on the whole armour of God … For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” — Ephesus (6:11,12)

Jim Snowden takes up the same cause in Dismantle The Sun where he draws upon a broad grounding in the humanities in order to marshal the forces of human reason and scientific evidence against the primitive fundamentalism that has made little advance and, in some quarters, become more horrific in its positions since biblical times. While his sympathies would appear to be firmly in the atheist camp, there is no lack of integrity in his presentation of its shortcomings before life’s mysteries. Consummate writing does justice to this compelling, sustained, and acutely resolved drama.


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Lion and Leopard by Nathaniel Popkin

Lion and Leopard

Lion and Leopard by Nathaniel Popkin

Review by Paul Xylinides


Art in the Bosom of a Real God

It may very well be that Nathaniel Popkin’s novel Lion and Leopard requires more than one reading in order fully to appreciate its argument. Certainly the discerning reader should have no trouble recognizing the quality of its painterly effects that so thoroughly complement the subject matter of this passionate work. Whoever seeks out literary writing for its own sake will not be disappointed. Nathaniel Popkin is a writer’s writer and possesses the prized capacity to render the essentially poetic not only in accessible but also in original phrases and images:

“Thin clouds, pink on the underside, blue-grey on top and black on the edges, stretched above the yellow fields on either side of the road.” (p.33)

“… cattle the color of boiled sugar.” (p.70)

“… the white hot flesh of the inside of an orange peel.” (p.103)

“Trees were black silhouetted against the sky, rose-stained by the vanishing sun.” (p.188)
To evoke the poetry of the everyday world is the most efficient and compelling means the writer has to restore the distant past. Not merely to record but to breathe life into vanished times it is necessary to present a world that reflects the sensibilities of the times. Somehow these sensibilities inform that world and are certainly our sole access to it. To do them justice the language must needs be transcendent in the same manner that life transcends death, the present transcends the past.

Rather than adopt the omniscient author’s point of view, as of one looking through a microscope, Popkin chooses the much more reliable perspectives of his individual characters to give integrity and variety to his scenes of early nineteenth century America. It is a methodology that allows him to bring all of his compositional talents to bear. One character says of another on first meeting:

“Krimmel’s face was thick and heavy, as if swollen, and his hair, which carried the light like clear maple resin, drifted down to rounded shoulders.” (p.13)

By this means we are introduced to the one who sees his role as an artist to be transformative and revolutionary. Krimmel, the European immigrant, aims to counter what he terms the “literal art, transcription and pedantry” that has taken hold of the country’s nascent cultural identity. “There is no wonder,” he says of its essentially conservative sanctification of the past and faithful rendering of surface:

“You can’t paint a man by magnifying every detail.” (p.88)

According to his listeners, as he spoke, “His eyes faded in the brightening sun. When we turned to bid him goodbye, they seemed almost white.” He would appear to have both an artist’s inward vision for the possibilities of his craft while overwhelmed by all that he saw and that demanded to be made known.

Krimmel has come from Vienna; taught by a group of artists, the fittingly named ‘Nazarenes’, he brings their gospel with him:

“Don’t speak to your subject, let it speak to you … A picture … isn’t a treatise … it seduces.”

“…let the landscape [first] seduce you.”

“…a successful picture leads the viewer into the scene, rather than bringing the scene to the viewer — or even telling him what it’s about.” (p.16)

“…making a picture starts with the eyes and not with the pencil.” (p.126)

The purpose of art is not to expose “some ugly truth” or, by the same token it might be argued, some beautiful truth but, rather, to reveal “possibility” and “the unknown” — qualities most appropriate for a young country, including Europe with its recent upheavals, in the throes of establishing its identity while ridding itself of the obfuscating claims and impositions of history’s entrenchments.

As one considers the mission he has undertaken — “To change the direction of art in America” or, in other words, “To give it new breath” — one can sympathize with its grandiosity when viewed from Tolstoy’s perspective that historical change is the product of innumerable individuals who choose for their own purposes to engage in altering the world. Where the Russian writer was using as his example those who enlisted in Napoleon’s armies and thereby made history, the cultural historian will appraise America’s contributions to the arts from the perspective of the countless artists, writers, and composers who took upon themselves to produce idiosyncratic work, spontaneous in nature and yet with a deep attunement to equally exploring sensibilities. It would not be too generous to maintain that each one of these original artists, rather than being tempted to commemorate the passing scene and its deeds, saw the work as an ongoing revelation:

“If a picture captures what is latent in a scene, it can grow in the imagination of the viewer. If a picture shows only an object as it is without even hinting at all that might be, it is dead in the imagination.” (p.130)

… whereas the establishment artist who cannot help but perform as a mouthpiece for the powers that be “paints to make us better citizens” (p.139). Intended to reflect the significance of the fledgling nation’s deeds, his work,

“…made portraits of the heroes across the political spectrum — from Tom Paine to Gouverneur Morris — and put them in a gallery as the American Pantheon … This is the original imprint of art in America: as commodity and as institution, like the treasury, in service of the nation.” (p.138)

To increase the “moral imperative” of the art work, such an artist toys with devices that will magnify detail in a manner precursive of future photographic realism. He considers making his figures life-size for purposes of greater authority. The striving is ever toward a humanly minted apotheosis:

“Religion, not as theology, but as the visceral reality, must … be reflected in art.” (p.150)

Yet, as the black prostitute whom Popkins ironically enlists to remove the sanctimonious mask says:

“So many of them become shameful and angry when I show them the path to God.” (p.158)

Art as an instrument of inquiry and revelation must propound a countering vision to the religiosity of America’s warring interests:

“Our souls are in the bosom of a real god, one who doesn’t spend half his time inventing suffering and the other half weeping for it.” (p.225)

“If we don’t destroy the brutality within us it will destroy us, the dream of America dissolved in the bare anger of becoming America.” (p.253)

It is not only by means of the aforementioned human frailties that Popkins reveals his subversive sympathies. He casts a similarly grounded eye upon the inevitable transactions that come into play in the course of any artist’s engagement with the world:

“I went into the greenhouse. It is winter and yet the pea vines are insistent. In my hand was a short roll of twine in case any of the spindles needed tying to the trellis. For a moment I was arrested by the beauty of the flowers, glistening white in the early sun, a touch of purple, a heat about them that can only be compared to that otherworldly sensation produced during fornication …” (p.295)

Popkins ends with a culminating painterly flourish and a deeply narrative irony that inverts the biblical unfolding of revelation. Where the Christ figure advanced the spiritual values of the Old Testament Jehovah, here, instead,

“… with the sun setting, like a sheepherder the son drove the father up the path to [the] … mill. The pink that seeped across the sky darkened the lines of the clouds so that it appeared a giant semi-translucent wing of a dragonfly, with its intricate map of veins, was covering the world.” (p.341)

Potential readers are urged to avail themselves of Lion and Leopard and draw, from its full breadth, their own exegesis of this exquisitely rendered passage.


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The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor by Kurt Brindley


The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor by Kurt Brindley

Review by Paul Xylinides


Kurt Brindley joins forces with Herman Melville

Before I begin this review, let me first recommend to anyone whom it persuades to read The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor, that after doing so they further benefit themselves by looking again at their copy of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor that I shall, however, quote from extensively. Kurt Brindley’s accomplishment should come into even greater focus when looked at through the lens of the nineteenth century classic novel.

Anyone who has ever experienced the injustice of being condemned by those who characterize their sensitivities in ways fundamentally at odds with their true identity will respond deeply to the travails of Kurt Brindley”s protagonist in The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor. From a tellingly different perspective the same fate befalls Melville’s hero. One cannot help but feel that there is a lot that is autobiographical in Brindley’s narrative in the similar manner of Melville who witnessed much that he described. Both writers display an encyclopedic knowledge of life on board a naval ship and, in Melville’s case, also a whaling vessel as Moby Dick famously shows. In their turn, Brindley and Melville spent many years at sea and they write with authority when it comes to the psychological challenges that arise in the close confines of a ship.

Of comparable length to Billy Budd, Sailor, whose proper literary antecedent it is, Kurt Brindley’s The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor utilizes similar narrative elements but diverges in its treatment of them. It is a dramatic shock to the reader when Brindley has his protagonist fresh from the navy’s boot camp become fixated by the “beauty” of one of his fellow sailors all while trying to find his place in a patently homophobic environment and himself not coming across as anything but a “straight” if extraordinarily self-conscious individual of ungainly physical appearance. He is obviously on dangerous ground from the get-go. Unlike the characterization of Billy Budd as the “Handsome Sailor [who had] no perceptible trace of the vainglorious about him, [but who] rather with the off-hand unaffectedness of natural regality … seemed to accept the spontaneous homage of his shipmates,” Brindley’s unfortunate seaman who suffers the scorn and groundless antipathy often directed toward the socially awkward describes his fellow sailor as “looking like one of those perfect underwear models found in magazines.” The baleful recipient of his attention makes his attitudes blindingly clear to our hero from the very beginning: “If I ever catch you looking at me again, I will fucking destroy you.” Where Billy Budd’s identity is celebrated as one who “might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall,” Brindley’s protagonist boasts no physically admirable attributes and remains nameless but for his humble acceptance of “Boot” as his handle.

A detailed comparison of the two works with their similar themes of the “handsome” or the “beautiful” sailor – Melville uses the epithets interchangeably – can only bring upon the reader feelings of distress at how the present age treats the exceptional among us. In Melville’s time a sailor would be venerated not only for his skills but also for his physical presence while today’s seaman should he be endowed with anything like a mesmerizing appearance will find himself branded as degenerate by the homophobic and the sensitive alike. He will be the aforementioned “underwear model” and his role on board ship will not be to inspire and bring harmony among his shipmates but serve as the ultimate expression of their fears and their hatred of difference. These only serve to warp and ultimately to turn such a figure malevolently toward any perceived slight or misconstrued attraction. An inversion has taken place in Brindley’s present day treatment: protagonist and antagonist – hero and villain – have switched roles.

In Billy Budd the malevolence was isolated:

“Now there can exist no irritating juxtaposition of dissimilar personalities comparable to that which is possible aboard a great war-ship fully manned and at sea. There, every day among all ranks almost every man comes into more or less of contact with almost every other man. Wholly there to avoid even the sight of an aggravating object one must needs give it Jonah’s toss or jump overboard himself. Imagine how all this might eventually operate on some peculiar human creature the direct reverse of a saint?”

The noxious ill-will in The Unfortunate Sailor prevails to the degree that it infects the person of the “beautiful sailor” himself who becomes the instrument for all the focused enmity towards the one who innocently responds to his appealing physical presence. Where the resident evil in the form of envy found in Melville’s narrative is localized to one crew member – “what it was that had first moved him against Billy, namely, his significant personal beauty” – unanimity reins among the rest of the crew as to the perceived blessing of having such a one as Billy Budd among them:

“Close-reefing top-sails in a gale, there he was, astride the weather yard-arm-end, foot in the Flemish horse as ‘stirrup,’ both hands tugging at the ‘earring’ as at a bridle, in very much the attitude of young Alexander curbing the fiery Bucephalus. A superb figure, tossed up as by the horns of Taurus against the thunderous sky, cheerily hallooing to the strenuous file along the spar.”

What the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had viewed as “a virtue … sugaring the sour ones [so that] they took to him like hornets to treacle” has been inverted and transformed into a taboo attraction in today’s navy.

In Brindley’s Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor, a terrible dichotomy has displaced the kind of universal celebration of the human being that permeates Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor. Brindley’s hero possesses all of the moral virtues one could desire but little in terms of the physical attraction that cloaks his fellow “underwear model” sailor who is unable to bear a scant glance his way. The tragedy of Melville’s story points to an evil in the nature of things but one that can be contained and isolated. Brindley exposes it has having escaped and infected much of the body politic. Where Billy Budd is willingly press-ganged from a ship that goes by the name of “The Rights of Man” and his full humanity is valued, in Brindley’s narrative more than two hundred years have passed and these same rights have yet to be codified as universal. Part of the human tragedy is that they need to be in the first place. One finds a modern naval crew divided among itself and the individuals that comprise it shorn of their fullest identity.

Where Melville rewards the reader with the expected richness and literary flourishes of a nineteenth century novelist, Brindley’s spare style is very much of the present time as it gives authentic voice to the various crew members of today’s American naval ship. One finds the pleasure of his writing in its seamlessness and in the sustained manner that he creates the worlds of his sailors’ differing perspectives. At the same time, it is a dramatic order of meditative prose that sustains its lightness of touch when it brings details into focus:

“Her skin was white, so white that it seemed to glow in the dark bar, and looked as soft and smooth as freshly risen cream.”

The immediate triumph of Brindley’s narrative lies in his presentation of those characters who prove unassailable to the enmity of their fellow crew members as they stubbornly and courageously own their differences. As the unfortunate sailor’s new-found mentor proclaims as he goes out – dressed to kill – on shore leave, “I want to look so good that heads turn when I walk by. I want everyone on this planet to want me, to desire me, to think about me when their eyes are closed.” When tragedy persists as it does in this tale, it is never easy to speak of an ultimate triumph although the narrative registers powerfully with the reader. Neither is triumph a word that one would easily apply to Billy Budd, Sailor, whose innocent hero despite universal affection succumbs to an envious enemy and to the harsh dictates of war. In both Melville and Brindley, however, one can speak of their respective achievement when it comes to a sensitive empathy for what is most vulnerable in human sensibility and that is subject to the darkest violations when conditions allow it.

In his naval career, Brindley’s must have been a compassionate presence among the kind of attitudes that threaten the vulnerable in society. His is ultimately a work of caring and understanding whose confident voice never declaims but informs about the emotional devastations that take place in those who must navigate unwarranted hatred from their peers. That The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor advances Melville’s narrative to today’s conditions is its further achievement.

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