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Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead cover

Here are sixteen stories. Most of them have appeared in print before, in such magazines and collections as Fence, Altair, Minnesota Monthly, and the wince inducingly-named Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Now they have been collected in a handsomely produced small-press paperback and put on sale. The price-tag says "$16," which isn't so much.

You want to know what these stories are like.

I'll put it this way: they pick out a narrow path between two bramble-thickets of descriptors. One thicket is pretension, and is made up of adjectives such as: aleatory, oblique, oneiric, lyric-mode, postmodern. The other thicket is infuriation and includes: random, confusing, self-indulgent, repetitive, obfuscatory. There's also, in that latter thicket, a tiny thorn named split-infinitives, but though that snagged on my tender skin it may not bother more robust readerly epidermises.

And the path between? The path, though wayward, is not always overgrown, and it is paved with poetry, insight, and beauty. It takes the reader to interesting and unexpected places. More to the point, it may be the only path that Alan DeNiro, as writer, can take to get where he wants to go.

I shudder, here, at my own reviewerish contrivance; except to say that it registers the effect these stories have on a reader. On this reader at any rate. Some of them haunt the mind after the book has been put down. Others sail past the mind, or past my mind at any rate, at right-angles and leave no trace. Some seem queerly beautiful; more seem too obviously the sort of thing written by the graduate of a prestigious Creative Writing MFA programme. I liked, I didn't like.

In the first story, "Our Byzantium," Byzantine warriors turn a Midwest college town into a weird Viriconiumesque realm, whilst the poet narrator struggles both with his own inarticulacy and with his unrequited love for another character. I take it to be a complex gloss upon Yeats's haunting "Byzantium." Perhaps even too complex: the compacted imagery somehow, I felt, isn't quite refined into the gaudy clarity the tale requires. The title story is more fully realised: a teenage narrator living in a suburb called Suddenly beside the morbidly named lake falls in love with a "deader" girl (a girl, in other words, from the lake); a person who seems to belong to a different sort of humanity. It's a strange and rather funny story, and the odd, future-high-school, rockscene, career-prospects, idling-about mileu is very well captured. I especially liked the way all the things a more conventional story would position as plot pay-off in the main body of the narrative—the details of what "deaders" are, how Oil City came to be flooded by the lake—are here relegated to a series of chatty footnotes.

When DeNiro's style works, it often works this way. It put me in mind of a sequence in Citizen Kane. Kane is running for office, and the movie builds to his barnstorming address to a cheering political rally. But at exactly the moment when you might expect the director to give us cheering crowds and a triumphant Kane, he cuts away. Suddenly we're in a high room, looking down upon the whole convention, which seems suddenly very far away. A character puts on his hat and walks away. It's a powerful moment, powerful in part because it's not obvious exactly why it is so affecting. At its best, DeNiro's writing achieves that same unheimlich disjunctive quality; but not every story manages the trick.

I'll give you an example of what I mean. "The Fourth" positions an ordinary, failing marriage against the backdrop of a hyperbolic, comically-realised surveillance operation that is being undertaken by a competing series of government agencies. The protagonist is called Indigo McCarthy, and for reasons that aren't made clear a whole troop of high-tech agents are following him. Indigo drives home in his SUV, and sits on the couch to drink a beer. His wife

went into the bathroom to make a call and to masturbate. The vibrator was hidden in a carved-out copy of The Prince. Not that little fellow who planet-hopped and got his ass handed-back to him by a snake; rather, the no-holds-barred paragon from Florence, back when Europe mattered. The pheromone drifted out of the living room and underneath the front door, to a badger waiting in the brush five hundred feet away. Upon detecting the scent, the badger rose to its hind legs to get the circulation going. (p. 52)

I know what you're thinking: that must be a pretty slim vibrator. You may also be thinking: what's this got to do with anything? It's indicative of mood, not substance. Substance really isn't the point. Indigo's family is arrested ("Your family consists of enemy combatants," he is told. "They are thus exempt from the Geneva conventions, as well as U.S. jurisprudence"). His house is smart bombed and destroyed, but he survives. He gets back in his SUV. He drives into town to see a parade ("patriotic clowns on stilts, the VFW marching"). His children are asleep on the back seat. His wife asks him whether she should wake them to put on their seatbelts. That's the whole story. Whether you like it is going to depend upon how delightful you find the tone, how illuminating you find the pairing of ordinary life and cartoonish War-On-Terror malarkies. For me the comico-satirical take on the dire present-day political situation seemed too clumsy (calling the protagonist McCarthy?—too much) and the non-sequitur details inexpressive. But at this level of lyric affect, and with this sort of assemblage of image and detail, perhaps the most a reviewer can do is note that his or her reaction is only subjective. You may love the story. You may love the whole collection.

In "If I Leap," a boy repeatedly jumps from a tall building, hitting the ground without hurting himself. The girl who falls in love with him lives in a world rather like ours, in which the shadow of a War on Terror falls across ordinary lives (in Asia, we're told, "some terrorist tried to blow up one of the new, hundred-storey high rises" (p. 42); later a plane crashes out of the sky). This means that the reader makes the connection DeNiro is too canny to spell out in so many words, between his falling protagonist and the 9-11 Falling Man. But does it sell this haunting notion short to spin it, by the end, into a magic-realist fable in which the boy becomes a sky creature and the girl a metamorphosant? I fear it does.

This is how "The Centaur" starts:

Once a man was shot in the leg during a battle. Fear of gangrene compelled the field doctor to unlock the leg from the rest of the body. The doctor sawed off the leg and stitched on a fairy tale in its place. The man lay in his cot and stared at the tattered tarp above him, listening to the grapeshot thudding into phalanxes over the ridge. (p. 59)

Does the writing—very accomplished, nicely wrought, 'unlock the leg ... grapeshot thudding'—compensate for the whimsy of the main conceit here?

What do you reckon?

Fairy tales; ancient cultures; religion; modern America; sex. Relationships, youth, anxieties, cats, chess. Excavations, murders, conversations. DeNiro doesn't want to bring these things into too tight a pattern or arrangement; the elegant chaos is presumably integral to his effect. You may find these stories enduring and dream-haunting; you may find them frustratingly disaffecting and neither-here-nor-there. It really could go either way. I'm sorry I have to end this review in so inconclusive a manner.

This is how DeNiro ends a few of his stories:

No one can say whether anyone lived in Erie or not after the cats were freed. It is inconclusive. ... The story becomes smaller and smaller. ... ("Home of the," p. 215)

A troupe of dwarves has moved onto the other side of the block. Do I have the nerve to introduce myself?

They seem small, and kind. ("The Friendly Giants," p. 122. Does DeNiro really think that this is the correct plural for "dwarf," or is it a deliberate reference to Tolkien? I can't tell.)

How does the bird merchant remain so calm at the sight of vampire squid? How does he resume his business, ignore the veils of limestone shrouding the world? Onto you, reader, this question is entrusted. Keep it fast to your body. Wear this question around your neck like a scapular, a sacred heart over your heart. In the middle of the night, an answer might storm upon you. Like a flock of birds coursing above your house, fleeing a body of water, it won't be in any grammar you recognize.

Dot, sky, dot, sky, dot. ("Cuttlefish," p. 68)

And with respect to that last one: part of me, reading it, wants to say don't tell me what to do, DeNiro! But part of me hopes, and even half suspects, that what he says will come true; and that when I lay me down to sleep fragments of his weirdly unique imagination will return to me and suddenly make strange, foreign sense.

Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.

Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.
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