A Book Review & Discussion with Dennis Cooper
The Fall of the Heartless Horse
Akashic Books, 2004, ISBN 1888451734, 170 Pages, Paperback $11.95. [Browse/Purchase]
By Justin Taylor
We know why authors like the books they’ve written. They’ve written them, for one thing, and will (in a certain sense) sink or swim based on their success. Editors at least have the advantage of choosing which manuscript to adopt rather than having to force themselves to love (and/or revise) whatever misbegotten thing they’ve birthed. Now, this is pretty early in a review for metaphor-stretching, and I promise to stop in a minute, but given the increasingly timid and corporate-controlled nature of mainstream publishing, it’s inevitable that there will be more orphaned manuscripts than there are foster-parent editors to adopt them. If being merely good enough is no longer good enough, then what does it take to catch (and hold) an editor’s attention?
The Fall of Heartless Horse, by Martha Kinney, was published by self-described practitioners of “reverse-gentrification of the literary world,” Akashic Books. I’ll tell you all about TFoHH in a minute, but for now suffice to say that this is a book which without the right editor might never have seen the inside of a bookstore. But the right editor is just what TFoHH found, or, more to the point: what found it. TFoHH is part of Akashic’s Little House On the Bowery imprint, a series curated and edited by the acclaimed and controversial novelist Dennis Cooper.
“I loved the book for a lot of reasons, both because it’s so fucking good and because it was an exciting choice strategically,” Cooper told me. Recalling the first time he read the manuscript: “I felt within a few pages that it was something really remarkable…[A]n experimental work overtly grounded in classical and modernist modes, that wasn’t just an exercise or mere language experiment. It was really accessible.” (Full disclosure I’m a longtime fan of Cooper’s; we met for the first time when I interviewed him for Bookslut.com this past February.)
Described on its jacket as “a novella in verse;” prefaced with a dramatis personae; drawing heavily on Scottish legends and songs; filled with mimicries of the style and form of (among others) legal documents and interviews; TFoHH manages to be by turns funny, sinister, and sad. Though I found that the story occasionally became muddled or bogged down by the text’s multitude of images and referents and agendas, on the whole TFoHH is as readable and as engaging as Cooper made it sound.
It’s also a unique entry into the LHotB series. Don’t get me wrong, each LHotB title has its own distinct voice and style (though Benjamin Weissman’s Headless caught some flack from critics who thought it sounded like discount Cooper), but Kinney is the only female author in the series so far, as well as the only poet. It’s also fair to say that while the series has taken some chances in terms of content, as you’d expect any Cooper-affiliated project would, this is probably the only title that earns (or even suggests) the mantle of “experimental.” And that, Cooper explained, was also part of the allure: “I wanted a book that would expand the parameters of the LHotB series and also diminish the expectations that people may have had about what a series curated by me would consist of. I wanted to signal that this series would be full of surprises from book to book.”
TFoHH is the story of a highly dysfunctional family. The children (Tadiscule, “the first son,” and Ambuscule and Minuscule, “siblings rarefied”) are fighting over the estate and fortunes (referred to as “ham”) of Heartless Horse, a family patriarch and businessman, recently retired to the Florida suburbs. They scrabble for hunks of inheritance as if he was already dead, but Heartless Horse is still very much alive. In contrast to her vulturous brothers, the Trembly Bird Who Flew Away (characterized in the dramatis personae as “the lost daughter”) doesn’t want any part in the family fortune, or for that matter, the family; she just wants to escape. Mrs. Heartless Horse, meanwhile, has taken the landscaper for a lover. Rounding out the cast are a vague battalion of “Grandvikings” (grandchildren), the delightfully named Donald Dhu, the “Delicious Bad Boy Long Gone” who was once the lover of The Trembly Bird, and a host of others.
In a recent appearance on KCRW Bookworm program, Kinney said that “Heartless Horse” was a term of semi-endearment that she and her sister gave to their father when they were young. This didn’t surprise me much. TFoHH is an obviously personal work, probably derived from serious soul-searching and certainly structured around a profoundly emotional core. In particular, the poems featuring The Trembly Bird bring a confessional checks-and-balances to bear on the quixotic gallop of the story-proper. Rightly or not, I suspected Trembly was more or less the voice and ersatz of Martha Kinney. As such, if the Bird poems felt like speed bumps at first, it was at least partially because they came off like unnecessary authorial intrusion, but also because they executed a disorienting pull-back from the familial fray into a much more fragile, austere (and unexpected) place. After some reconsideration, though (and this is a book that both invites and deserves multiple readings), it occurred to me that perhaps this was the point: that I should come to understand The Trembly Bird’s unenviable position by being offered some of the instinctual emotions guiding her flight.
When I asked if he had a favorite poem or character, Cooper said no, that he was, rather, “into the entirety of the thing.” I’m quick to agree. Though infused with an odd-man-out quality by their emotional and spatial distance from the rest of the story’s action, The Trembly Bird poems probably wouldn’t stand too well on their own. It is the inextricable quality of all the poems that makes this book such an intricate, unique piece of literature: a novella in verse rather than a long suite of poems.
A word on the poetry, then, is in order. Kinney has a hawk’s eye for language, working with and shifting between phrasings as keen as they are varied. In “Let Me Go,” one of the many “postcards” from The Trembly Bird, she evokes the effects of (im)migration on personal and human history with harsh, expansive lines: “we were an autistic country in perpetual summer; / blooming over the Atlantic as we came.” Elsewhere, legalese is turned on its head as elder sibling Tadiscule, an Esquire, sends a memo to the other two “RE: The pitfalls of salutation to Horse without affirmative action for Ham.” At her weirdest, Kinney’s sentences sound kin to Donald Barthelme, as when Tadiscule, considering his wife during an early morning putt on the driving range, thinks to himself that “he must buckle her down into his certainties soon.”
On the facing page, Heartless Horse is jotting a “to do” list which includes addressing at least one problem that has slipped the minds of his inheritance-hungry progeny: “Kingdom succumbing to universe of malls.”
20 May 2005
Justin Taylor is a freelance writer, currently based out of Portland,
Oregon. Visit his personal website at http://www.justindtaylor.net/