The Happiness of Others

by Leon Rooke,
260 pages,
ISBN: 088984125X

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Golden Oldies
by Douglas Glover

THIS BOOK is a selection of Leon Rooke's Golden Oldies, stories culled from three previous collections and Exile magazine, all long out of print and delightfully reincarnated here in a splendid, thick Porcupine's Quill edition.

The author supplies an illuminating introduction in which he firmly places himself in a particular generation of postmod American writers who emerged in the '50s and '60s -Coover, Barthelme, Pynchon, Berger, Gaddis, Michaels writers, Rooke says, who

"were on the prowl for new strategies, new methods of presentation, a fusion of fresh and disparate techniques in the deployment of the story, stylistic innovation ... for a revamped, uninhibited muse."

"Uninhibited" is the operative word here. Rooke deploys a vast array of disruptive and disrupted plot techniques, inter-woven voices, bizarre or fantastic situations, and morally ambiguous or outrageously evil characters. He writes in a style that is part hammer- and-tongs sermon and part lyric delirium, threaded through with a line of high Southern (Faulknerian) bombast and rhetorical violence. These stories are harsh, dark, brooding, and extremely funny. In "Biographical Notes," a saintly, philosophical porno-film producer fights for custody of his dead star's daughter after being accused of rape by the child's demented and abusive babysitter. In the Rashomon-like "The Heart Must from Its Breaking," a paralysed woman crawls from her deathbed to battle a nameless apparition come to steal her children. The children escape on a miraculous white horse and are never seen again. In "The End of the Revolution and Other Stories," Rooke presents the reader with a diary of a schizophrenic, all of whose loves, obsessions, tormentors, and admirers turn out to be aspects of her own mind. "The Street of Moons," either a novella or three connected stories, depending on how you look at it, takes place in a death-haunted Mexican fishing village that suffers periodic floods and mysterious plagues. An expatriate American girl named Madeline runs out of money, gets dumped by her sponging boyfriend, and ends up prostituting herself to an eccentrically evil, white-suited Mexican named Gomez.

Rooke has an amazing range; he casts his stylistic net widely. But in story after story his thematic preoccupations revolve around the idea of innocence under assault - terrible things happen to women and children in Rooke stories. Death lurks in the unidentifiable garbage mounds in the Mexican streets or in the face and voice of a beautiful woman or in a golden, spinning shape in a church aisle. Madness haunts every one of us. But, above all, some people are just plain vile and run around doing harm. (Rooke is one of the few writers in our nice-nice, post-therapeutic age who will actually present an irredeemably nasty character.)

Rooke's vision is Manichaean, melodramatic, exaggerated, and sometimes intentionally cartoonish. At its root, it is pure antithesis - angels against devils. This formal opposition, though, is the engine of his furious style. Leon Rooke doesn't write like any of those precious minimalists or K-Mart realists cluttering the literary marketplace these days. He is the high-priest of maximalist panache, the standard-bearer for a hyper-rhetoric that is at once strange, eccentric, and beautiful.


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