(By Chuck Palahniuk. Doubleday; 197 pp., $24.95.)
I’ve always been one to give Chuck Palahniuk a break. The author of “Fight Club” and a handful of similar male-aggro novels about destroying the status quo is often called shocking, twisted, sick, infantile and, of course, chauvinistic. His new novel, “Snuff,” a quickie about an aging porn queen who sets out to record the biggest gang-bang in history — 600 dudes — is all of these things. Sadly, it is also something of a punt for Palahniuk, a high-caliber writer who rarely sells his audience short on complexity.
Three waiting porkers and an assistant tell the story of Cassie Wright, the aging starlet desperate to leave a mark on the world and, at the same time, provide a little dough for the child she gave up for adoption early in life. The kid, the result of her first porn flick, is the subject of much hand-wringing among the four narrators for about three-fourths of the novel. There Palahniuk dawdles more than usual, as the three males — Nos. 72, 137 and 600 — softly blend into less-distinguishable versions of the same guy: weird obsessive who’s come to bang Cassie Wright as some form of exorcism.
Like many young men, one reason I’m a fan of Palahniuk is that his books allow me to exercise a preternatural machismo fantasy quite distant from my actual self. But one of the author’s strongest traits in previous works has been balancing that with something more palatable, easier to understand and contextualize and, thus, ultimately more disturbing. Like most porn, “Snuff” is one-dimensional, too focused on a single (though admittedly good) plot twist to achieve full climax. —Stephen George
Threshold Moments in American Literature
(By Merle L. Bachman. Syracuse University Press; 326 pp., $29.95.)
In this sophisticated and witty book, Merle Bachman — a poet and director of the undergraduate creative writing program at Spalding University — leads readers to “Yiddishland” in Manhattan’s Lower East Side from the 1890s through the 1930s.
The granddaughter of Yiddish-speaking working-class immigrants from Russia, Poland and Rumania, Bachman was raised as a Reform Jew and taught to accept the narrative that Jews naturally cast off Yiddish in the process of assimilation. She grew up, she says, as “an inductee into cultural amnesia;” in her childhood, “the blanking-out of Yiddish seemed natural.”
Amid an account of her own experience as a “returnee” who becomes a Yiddish student, a translator of some never before translated Yiddish poetry and a passionate literary critic of Yiddish stories and poems, Bachman reveals how Yiddish-speaking writers and immigrants living in Yiddishland actually experienced America.
“These immigrants,” she writes, “who largely came to America as craftspeople (e.g., shoemakers, hatmakers), peddlers, and traders, were swept up into sweatshop and factory work. Their … swift transformation into a working class created a climate ripe for both political organizing and … poetry.”
In Yiddishland, poetry occupied a powerful public space. It was read out loud everywhere — in Café Europa, in parks and under street lamps. Poets who had studied at the City College of New York and had become fluent in English often chose to write and read in Yiddish, not only for their audiences but because they felt the language was better suited to poetry, “more rhythmically lucid.”
Through such vivid descriptions, Bachman guides the reader to an awareness that these Yiddish works are a part of literary America and can become, “if we are willing to recognize and welcome them,” as she puts it, “an enduring part of us.” —Judy Cato