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On Tom Cooper’s “The Marauders”

3 Mar

The Marauders [2015] by Tom Cooper

The Marauders [2015] by Tom Cooper

If there’s one place in the United States that inspires images of shrouded mystery and magical kingdoms, it’s the bayou. Maybe it’s the French and Creole cultural background, so spicy and foreign, so different from the Anglo-Germanic traditions elsewhere in the country. Or maybe it’s the setting itself: hoary trees, prehistoric predators, covered and joined with water. Thanks to the magical realism of films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and the hallucinatory elements of films like In the Electric Mist (not the best example, I admit, but I have an old man crush on Tommy Lee Jones), my perception of bayou stories is eternally skewed toward the mythical and darkly romantic. Tom Cooper’s debut novel about a hodgepodge of men in post-Deepwater Horizon Louisiana extracts the romantic and leaves the myth and the darkness. The Marauders speaks of good things to come from new author Cooper.

The Marauders sets its stage several years after the BP oil spill disaster at Deepwater Horizon, and describes the lasting effects the spill inflicts on the resident shrimpers of Jeanette, Louisiana. Cooper manages to scale the unfathomable disaster down to something more understandable and human by following the course of five stories: teenage Wes Trench and his quest for his father’s approval as a man and a next-gen Jeanette shrimper; Brady Grimes, the BP yes-man knocking on doors, heckling Jeanette’s residents into settling on a measly sum for their ruined lives; Gus Lindquist, a one-armed shrimper with dreams of finding the pirate Jean Lafitte’s buried treasure of Spanish dubloons; the Toup twins, who would do anything to protect their hidden island farm of marijuana; and Cosgrove and Hanson, two petty criminals on the verge of the biggest break of their lives. It’s a small sampling of life in a hurricane-torn, oil-slicked bayou, and Cooper adds enough spice to make the novel a decently tasty morsel.

Bayou (Photo from "Xavier Lambrecht")

Bayou” is Louisiana French from the Choctaw word “bayuk,” meaning “small stream.” Talk about lost in translation. (Photo from “Xavier Lambrecht“)

The separate story lines tell the same narrative: a man struggles against his ties to his homeland. These men are fixtures of Barataria or they dream of escaping its narrow lifestyle. They return home full of bitterness and loathing or they learn to respect a dying way of life and embrace its tradition. Cooper’s description of the landscape is sparse but vivid leaves readers with the sharp impression of scents and moist heat. His attentiveness to character description instills a little less confidence, though, and I found it difficult to consider the Toup twins as anything more than a couple of floppy, cliché villains–two-dimensional and easy to hate. Wes Trench is similarly flat in the opposite polar end of the balance between Good and Evil. He’s all hard work and youthful earnestness. I wanted to punch him in the face.

Cooper is strongest in the chapters following our one-armed shrimper and treasure-seeker Lindquist. Lindquist miraculously reaches his middle ages, despite his painkiller addiction and an obsession that drives away his wife and daughter and threatens to sink his business. When the starved, oil-covered shrimp are few and far between, Lindquist religiously scans the muddy banks of the Barataria with his metal detector searching for the buried treasure of notorious Gulf pirate Jean Lafitte. In his spare time, Lindquist researches his library of maps and old myths, pouring his time and his soul into the hunt of the pirate’s missing Spanish dubloons. The town both ridicules him for his obsession and respects him for his faithfulness. Fueled by his feverish pipe dream of pirate treasure, Lindquist is the heart of the Barataria. The man throws everything away–his health, his family, his livelihood–for a single belief, a hope that no one else seems to understand but everyone takes comfort in.

“No, he wasn’t wrong. Lindquist knew it in his blood. He knew it with providential certainty, the same way a dowser knew there was water in the ground, the same way a diviner knew a ghost was in the room. And as long as he kept searching, as long as he kept digging holes in the ground, he’d never be wrong.”

Oiled bird (Photo from "Marine Photobank")

An ocean bird suffers from an oil spill. The adverse effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster are still felt today by the Gulf wildlife and its human dependents. (Photo from “Marine Photobank“)

The Lindquist story line alone would make The Marauders an entertaining novel at the very least, and I would have enjoyed an entire novel about him and his pitiable, yet somehow respectable, obsession. The other characters seem to all fall short in comparison, but the greatest travesty is the novel’s utter lack of diversity. In the Deep South, where society is a great stew of hybrid cultures, languages, tastes, and customs, The Marauders is astoundingly white and male. Not only are the main story lines boringly similar to each other, but the other non-white or female characters are so wan and weak they could be figments of your imagination. Of the three or so female characters with speaking lines, one is dead, one is dying, and none of them exceed a stereotypical understanding of “woman as understood by a man”: the perfect, idolized mother lost in Katrina; the mother dying of cancer; a bitter ex-spouse. I’m not saying every book has to have a balanced cast of men and women. I’m just saying that the women included here are not real women. Even more appalling is the lack of any character who isn’t white. An off-handed mention of some Vietnamese fishers doesn’t count in my book, and the lack of any mention of Black Americans and Black Southern culture all points to apparent Cooper’s tunnel vision.

Read It: Do you feel like kicking back with a cold brew and a relaxing, but entertaining read that won’t force you into the hard labor of thinking? The Marauders is the book for you. With its bold, easy symbolism and swift currents of plot, readers won’t need to exercise their grey cells to uncover the mystery of Barataria Bay, and I say this as a compliment. The novel is totally accessible and enjoyable as fun, light read.

Don’t Read It: The Marauders is a debut novel, and it reads like a debut novel. Cooper still needs to flesh out his two-dimensional characters, get some meat on them to make their stories not only unique but worthwhile. This might not be the book for you if you aren’t willing to be a little forgiving of those first-novel kinks.

Similar Books: Tom Cooper’s novel reminded me more of a couple of films than of books: In the Electric Mist, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Sarsgaard–as surreal and hallucinatory as Gus Lindquist’s story of pirate treasure–and The Beasts of the Southern Wild, starring Quvenzhané Wallis–a wild ride of magical realism and Southern character sketches. A book with similar tone and attentiveness to geographical subcultures is Jessie van Eerden’s Glorybound, another first novel, this time following several characters in a West Virginia coal mining town.

On Haidji’s “Suicide Game”

29 Dec
If you're interested in exploring a new author, look for Haidji's Suicide Game on Amazon, and check out her blog.

If you’re interested in exploring a new author, look for Haidji’s Suicide Game on Amazon, and check out her blog.

Have you ever wondered what life would be like in a world that televised, gamified, and glorified death? A world where a person’s life was worth less than the entertainment value of her death? Oh, wait. Maybe we already live in that world. Haidji’s novel Suicide Game takes an extra step from our already death-obsessed culture. In Suicide Game, an arena is built and a deadly competition is started. Eight thousand men and women will jump for their lives and the ultimate prize. The world will be watching and betting on their favorite candidates. A host of characters will explore the meaning of life in the face of almost certain death.

Haidji was kind enough to send me a galley proof of her 2013 novel. I’m always thrilled to read a new author, especially one such with risky ideas. Suicide Game proves Haidji has her mind headed the right direction, and passion and artistry certainly shows throughout the novel, but there were too many unaddressed questions and too much carelessness for the story to cohere.

On day one of the game, 2,000 people jump from a raised platform. They may die or they may live. It all depends on whether or not the game administrators decide to snap the slender line that tethers each candidate to safety. The rest fall to their deaths on the sandy arena floor. Again and again the candidates jump, their numbers dwindling and the odds changing. Flashes of eerie imagery show through Haidji’s whirlwind prose, and I was reminded of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, in which a performance artist throws himself from increasingly higher launch points, attached only by wire and harness, imitating the victim of the 9/11 attack who threw himself from the towers to his death. Whereas DeLillo throws the image of the falling man into the reader’s face so often it’s imprinted there, Haidji briefly includes any description of what the game looks like, leaving only vague sketches. Who invented this morbid game? How is it such violence and morbidity became acceptable? Why is everyone so content to watch people jump off of a platform? Who decides who lives or dies and why? What is the prize for the winner besides life? Too many questions remain.

The image of a falling man (in this case, the falling man) is too powerful to ignore, but it was lost in Suicide Game, a book about jumping to one's death.

The image of a falling man (in this case, the falling man) is too powerful to ignore, but it was lost in Suicide Game, a book entirely about jumping to one’s death. (Image from Esquire.)

At the risk of sounding snobbish and harsh, carelessness and a poor translation undermined the whole book. Haidji is vague where details are needed and absorbed in minutiae where broad strokes would do better service. SG had the potential to be charmingly surreal, poignant in its character sketches, lyrical in some passages, and perhaps even profound. All of this is obscured in lack of information and clumsy turns of phrase. 

Despite the title, and despite the premise of the game, this book doesn’t address the concept or act of suicide. Candidates of the Suicide Game join in an attempt to win something, not out of hopelessness or a desire to end their lives. The point of the game is to survive. Suicide, as we all know, is quite the opposite. Interspersed throughout the novel, though, are short character vignettes of several candidates, and their stories turn out to be the highlight of the novel. The reader receives glimpses of the characters’ motives, and these motives drive the story forward. I hope to see more of Haidji’s work in the near future, especially if she focuses on character development, which is her greatest strength.

On Morris Fenris’s “A Lifetime”

15 Oct

Morris Fenris's A Lifetime is available to download on Amazon.

Morris Fenris’s A Lifetime is available to download on Amazon. I think the cover art is awesome! [Hug]

Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of receiving an advanced copy of a text, and while I appreciate the opportunity to read new works, I hope the author appreciates an honest review. Morris Fenris’s A Lifetime is an ambitious short story of a man struggling to find meaning in life. Essentially all stories are about finding meaning in life, right? So we’re off to a good start. The unnamed protagonist struggles through the poverty of childhood on a plantation, the listlessness of young adulthood, and the pain of loss, but it’s through the joy of his daughter that he finds solace. Fenris certainly has the eye for an epic story. A Lifetime is the story of triumph, the joys of family, and the perseverance of the human spirit. And yet I didn’t feel the joy of reading as I plodded through its 20-something pages.

A college professor gave me writing advice once (I mean, she gave me advice lots of times, but here’s the relevant one): write the first draft, and by the time you get to the end you’ll understand what you’re trying to say, and then write the second draft. Fenris wanted to write about a man’s life. Well, he started at birth but definitely didn’t end at death. He ended prematurely–right around when the narrator’s life seems to begin. I’m crossing my fingers Fenris will write a sequel.

A Lifetime speeds through events with the tone and fluidity of a resumé. The protagonist is born. He lives on a plantation. He moves to the Philippines. He falls in love. Nowhere in this monotony did I feel the protagonist’s personality or humanity. Perhaps my personal preference of highly descriptive novels (even descriptiveness to a fault, Dickens-style) held me back, but I couldn’t buy the narrator’s emotionless tone:

“Life hadn’t been perfect, it rarely was, but on the whole, things had been good. I had come from nothing had worked my way up from the poor little plantation boy with the penniless parents and the unqualified midwife to be a successful businessman with a beautiful wife, fantastic in-laws and a baby on the way. I had money, happiness and I had love, everything that I could have wanted and more.” -from A Lifetime

When tragedy strikes the narrator, I didn’t feel a twinge of pain or empathy. Maybe I’m still jaded from watching “Downton Abbey,” season three, episode five. But I wonder if Fenris felt anything either. In the words of Robert Frost, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Part of the problem here is the lack of any character development. When a character is impacted, it’s like a feather floating into a pillow: soft and fluffy. … I mean, unnoticeable.

As the (extremely) colorful writer Anaïs Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” We all know how … varied … Nin’s life must taste, but Fenris’s must be made of a much blander palate. A Lifetime is a straightforward retelling of events–no embellishment, no imagery, no art. I caught glimpses of humanity in the characters, during brief moments, but I remain unconvinced. I hope Fenris continues working at his craft, though. His material is, at its core, fascinating and compelling. I think I would enjoy an entire novel about the boy on the plantation, or a novel beginning where A Lifetime ended (which, don’t be deceived, isn’t at the end of the narrator’s life).