Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Puddle Variations Review

It is best to start with disclosures when there are reasons for it, so here it is. I first got acquainted with Jeff through a policy disagreement when I first blogged in my Primary campaign. Jeff Alworth became one of my most visible and public supporters, which was appreciated. We have supported each other's blogging work over the intervening years and I'd say we're friends. I have rather obvious reasons to want to like Jeff's first novel. I do like it.

Charlie di Paulo is a Portland, Oregon cabbie who is also a film maker in the making. He is a part of a matrix composed of the Portland you only know by extended experience and some interesting people, carefully and yet sparingly developed. Jeff takes you on a journey through Portland, film making, and getting to know people.

The pace of the book is relaxed despite being episodic, reminiscent of quick cut indie films. The technique is effective and keeps the relaxed pace moving. There are a couple transitions that are too quick and prompt a back track to see that a page hasn't been missed somehow. The story holds together but the effect is jarring. These are the quibbles I have, and I have now dealt with them.

It would be unfair to the book to delve into the plot, but it should be obvious that for a cabbie the funds to make films is an issue beyond the issue of the creativity of making films. These processes, artistic, technical, and economic run through the story, forming it and directing it. The characters circle the art of film making, weaving into the art and through the life of the protagonist. The development of each character is treated differently, in a manner fitting each one's relationship to Charlie, whose character grows through the entire novel.

Along with author John Gardner (Sunlight Dialogues, October Light, Nickle Mountain, Grendel) I believe that the reader's participation in a story is key to its success. I enjoy the process of seeing the character in my mind through the process of filling in the description, an owning of the character. If this is to be accomplished a measured spareness of description is required, enough for the framework, but not enough to be dictatorial. Jeff manages this nicely with all the characters, including Portland.

The structure of The Puddle Variations is unique in some respects but not distractingly so, the flow is not broken and the story line makes sense. The effect is very nearly that of looking at the story by viewing editing clips, with an occasional piece lost behind something on the table, which is different than the complaint mentioned previously. The omniscient narrator is affectionately interested in the characters and their circumstances though he has a slightly distanced wry smile. This affectation is well enough carried off that the reader willingly adopts the same frame. After the last page and the book is resting on the table, the reader will continue to regard the characters in the same light, with an affectionate smile.

One very distinct mark of a good book is how willingly the reader suspends disbelief in the matter of this known falsehood of a fictional novel; Jeff provides the hook to hang that on. You have a sense of friendly reality, these people must exist somewhere in Portland and the lives and intersections of their lives seem as though they should happen. You will not finish this book and wonder why you bothered with these people in this place, you will have enjoyed getting to know them.

This is a first novel and occasionally betrays that it is. It is not a "mainstream" work of light fiction, it places certain demands on a reader that much current popular fiction does not. This is not to indicate that it is some deep philosophic treatise on an obscure philosophical point; it is an enjoyable read, but there is an attempt to create art along with telling a story and a reader must process that to get the entire value of the work. There is storytelling (even very good storytelling) and there is literary art, this falls in between. There is an obvious reach to go beyond a simple story and yet keep a simple story and a book like this one asks the reader to make that reach as well. I would guess that this is the element that has kept the book out of mainstream publishing; if you pass on it for this reason, you will have missed a good bargain for your money.

You can get a copy of The Puddle Variations at Lulu for $15.00 + shipping. I hope you do and enjoy it. Thanks Jeff - I did.

7 comments:

Jeff Alworth said...

Thanks for the careful reading and spending time with the review. There is no greater satisfaction than having someone read what you've written (as bloggers well know).

I think your review captures quite accurately the successes and limitations of the book--which is also gratifying. It seems to have been effective at communicating what I intended, even when my own communication wasn't perfectly effective.

Thanks much!

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