Erik Martiny - With its playful, manic prose and delightful self-referentiality, 'The Pleasures of Queueing' is a caffeinated Tristram Shandy for the globalist era

Erik Martiny, The Pleasures of Queueing, Mastodon, 2018.

He aspires to solitude and sobriety. His parents thrive on exuberance and the production of babies on an industrial scale.

When Olaf Montcocq emerges from the plush seclusion of his mother’s uterus in the early 1970s, his parents turn out to be a good deal more than he bargained for. His mother Anne is an ultra-Catholic, alt-feminist Irishwoman and Martin his father a disturbingly eccentric Frenchman convinced that the Second World War is a moveable feast. But Olaf’s predicament doesn’t stop there. Anne’s beliefs make her staunchly anti-contraception and Martin happens to be unstoppably oversexed. Before long, Olaf is surrounded by a horde of bickering siblings that make queueing for basic amenities an inescapable feature of his life. By the time he starts to compose the Great Franco-Irish Family Chronicle, Olaf discovers that attempting to put pen to paper in a household of twenty plus children is about as easy as trying to concentrate with your head in a beehive. Seeking to find relief from overcrowding and parental eccentricity, Olaf encounters a series of disconcerting young women who will drive him to even greater distraction. Will he and his siblings be able to inhibit his parents’ procreative frenzy in time to save the household from mayhem? Can he juggle his increasingly outlandish relationships without losing his marbles? Erik Martiny’s madcap comedy takes the reader on a whirligig of a ride through a post-hippy world of bicultural collisions.

“A raunchy, gargantuan, irreverent dash through the fields of ripeness and desire, spiced by history with a lightly borne trail of cultural baggage. (Reads like fun).” –George Szirtes, critic for The Times, winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize

“With The Pleasures of Queuing Erik Martiny joins Aidan Higgins, Julian Gough, Kevin Barry, on the more exuberant wing of the Irish comic novel. His is a frothy mix of cosmopolitanism and theologico-sexual intrigue, but echoing with an unmistakable steel behind the ribald laughs.”
David Wheatley, critic for The Guardian, winner of Rooney Prize for Irish Literature

“Hilarious and heartfelt in equal measure, Erik Martiny’s story of bohemia and bountiful creation has the verve and nerve and verbal inventiveness of early Philip Roth.” –Lee Jenkins, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry

The Pleasures of Queuing is an irresistible addition to the distinguished recent annals of the Irish comic novel. The breathless eloquence of Martiny’s narrative sweep through the eccentricities of his version of Cork doesn’t allow the reader a moment’s pause.” –Bernard O’Donoghue, Oxford University, winner of the Whitbread Prize

“Shot through with devastating humour, audacity and an unfettered imagination redolent of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Erik Martiny’s fiction carries the reader through a stunning, hilarious epic, chiselled in the goldsmith’s language of wild virtuoso.”
Nicole Ollier, Professor of Literature and Gender Studies, University of Bordeaux

“The hyper-vivid prose rocks on from start to end, channeling the jesting tone of Tom Jones in a modern idiom.” –Peter Harris, poet published in The Atlantic and Ploughshares

“With its playful, manic prose and delightful self-referentiality, The Pleasures of Queueing is a caffeinated Tristram Shandy for the globalist era. Erik Martiny has concocted an intelligent, irreverent romp of a bildungsroman.” –Todd Nathan Thompson, author of The National Joker: Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Satire

“Erik Martiny’s The Pleasure of Queueing is a scabrously funny, pungently corporeal comedy of (bad) manners that reminds us not only of the bodily co-ordinates of Irish writers such as Beckett and Donleavy, and the visceral emphases of French Surrealism, but of the work of William Burroughs and his rendition of ‘the copulating universe’, all packed into the trials and tribulations of one family. Hold on tight.” –Geoff Ward

In chapter 13 of his very funny and entirely absorbing novel, Erik Martiny has his narrator and protagonist Olaf Montcocq describe his family thus: “All in all, we are the happiest and most fully functional dysfunctional family I know. Totally and felicitously dysfunctional.” Olaf is right on every level, and the prose here (with its sound effects and repetitions) reveals the brio and affection with which he talks of them throughout.
Olaf recounts the first twenty years or so of his life. He is born to an Irish mother and a French father and spends much of this period in Cork, where he attends school and university. The novel begins with his conception and ends with his departure on the ferry from Cork to Roscoff. The shades of Sterne and Joyce are implicitly invoked at these points in the narrative. Joyce is, to a degree, an abiding presence in the novel, and one evoked in a surprising and endearing encounter with the dead in the sauna on the ferry to Brittany at the novel’s end. For this is a first-person account of growing up in Ireland. (A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man is, of course, a third-person narration, but the point of view is Stephen’s throughout.) It involves an eccentric and problem-ridden family, youthful experiences of school and sex, a protagonist with literary ambitions, a depiction of Irish society, life, and mentalités, and ultimately a departure from the country. (Stephen Dedalus never gets away; Olaf does.) Flann O’Brien is present in the novel, too, in the inconsequentiality of dialogue and the vivacious interplay of English, Irish-informal, and French.
But, in fact, Martiny’s novel is not Joycean at all, but something richer, more accessible, and much funnier. The narrative is linear, beginning with conception and birth and proceeding logically and (largely) chronologically to provisional maturity. Most of the novel is given in present tenses, which gives it an engagingly racy and informal immediacy. The passage of years is marked by brief news items related to the year in question – drawn we learn from French radio broadcasts that Olaf’s father insists on filling the family home with – so the reader always knows more or less when he/she is. These snippets of news have – as Olaf himself points out – several functions, but they constantly counterpoint and perhaps darken the personal events the narrator recounts. They also, however, alert the reader to the social contexts of the personal – for example, Irish religiosity, and Montcocq père’s complex French and historical identity.
The novel is very funny, irreverent (for example, the contrast of the Church of Ireland priest and service at Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral with that of the local Catholic Church of the Real Pleasure), bawdy (the episode at the fallen and be-holed Berlin Wall is an outrageous romp), and event-filled (Olaf’s attempt to persuade his young twin siblings that incest is not a good idea spirals like a crazy punctured, wet-farting balloon zig-zagging among Hiberno-demotic, Standard English, and French). In addition, Martiny – or Olaf – writes magnificently resourceful driving sentences. The verve with which the young Olaf describes his impulses to masturbate and ejaculate is, indeed, impressive.
I even try banging a drawer, a wardrobe, a shutter, a lighted lamp, a table, a chair and the sofa. I try quenching my quince against the window, the floor, mouldy cellar walls, the dishwasher, the fridge. I would try choking Kojak against the ceiling if I could reach it.
Olaf and his family are at the centre of the novel. Olaf grows up in the course of events, but the novel is written from a much later period, and, thus, his voice and sensibility do not really change. But he experiences a lot in and with his family. Anne Montcocq is Irish, Catholic, and has twenty-seven children. She claims to be a feminist and is certainly no doormat or wet dishrag. Olaf’s father, however, plays a larger role in the story – a Frenchman of high national and social principles, a child of 1939 and 1968 simultaneously, a linguistic tyrant, a monster of eccentric thrift and generosity, and driven (he claims) by satyriasis (nomen omen indeed). Both mother and father are – despite several of their children’s best efforts – hugely philoprogenitive. Olaf can barely keep his siblings apart in his head at the end of the novel, let alone find a place to sit and write. Despite eccentricity, over-crowding, squalor, Olaf is very clear about his affection for his parents – and even the other children. The family is near insanity in its weirdness, but, on the whole, his parents do a reasonable job.
Ireland, too – with its awful weather, its sexual mores, its religiosity, its hypocrisy, its adolescent aggression – is finally a likeable place, or at least comic. Olaf describes his Irish childhood as “really rather happy” and Ireland itself “as by no means an entirely dystopian location.” John McGahern’s and Seán O’Faolaín’s poisoned and crabbed provinciality is somewhere else. Certainly, the vicissitudes of the Montcocq family are as nothing compared to the other news from Ireland in the snippets of events that begin and end each chapter. The encounter with a Biafran student in chapter 6 certainly puts even Ireland in perspective.
Apart from the family and Ireland, Olaf writes of the everyday, but an everyday that is exalted and magnified just this side of credibility. This is, of course, the source of much humour. I am particularly struck by Olaf’s father’s authoritarian and well-meant attempts to maintain French in his home and among his children, his policy as regards refrigerator use, Olaf’s defecation in a school lavatory cubicle that is without toilet paper and the grisly solution required, his parents’ disturbingly decorated Citroëns, Olaf’s thoughts on school uniforms, and his mother’s trap-filled instructions to find things in the kitchen. Many readers will surely murmur that they’ve been there, seen that, done that – if not exactly to that degree.
Young Olaf ends the novel going off to France to be a writer. Indeed, a concern with writing has been present in the novel from the start – in the literary echoes and revisions, in the tumblingly vivid language, in the comic exaggeration, in Olaf’s grousing about there being no place to write at home. However, the novel ends with a splendid comic conceit. The spirits of dead writers whom Olaf respects (and the reader can have fun guessing who’s who, for they are not all clearly identified) turn up in the sauna on the ferry to France. The idea of Hemingway in the sauna is funny enough, but Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett as well, in the buff in the steam! Now, that’s very funny.
This is a novel to enjoy and appreciate – for its language, its humour (bawdy and irreverent in equal measure, sometimes affectionate, and always inventive), its version of growing up in Ireland, its obiter dicta on Ireland, and its capturing of the strangeness of the everyday. Stephen Dedalus’s Irish nets are there (194), but Olaf Montcocq holds good to be able to fly by them. - David Malcolm

Erik Martiny, author of this hilarious and vividly written first novel was, like his narrator, born in Cork, Ireland and grew up speaking French at home. This dual heritage inscribes itself on every page of this Bildungsroman. It may be that Martiny’s bilingualism in both language and culture allows him a more than ordinary awareness of the potential playfulness and variety of English as spoken in Ireland. He may also just be inordinately gifted. In any case, the novel abounds in verbal play with choice renderings of the speech patterns and pronunciations of Corkonian school kids, interspersed with diction that ranges high and astonishingly low. Martiny plays all 88 keys of his piano with gusto.
The Pleasures of Queuing is not for those who adhere to what the aptly named narrator, Olaf Montcocq, calls “the standards of the gentility principle.” Gentility rarely appears in the novel; it is an almost-Rabelaisian romp that trades in the grotesque-made-normal. A witty self-conscious distance allows Martiny to contextualise the bizarre into familial banality. Olaf recounts his life chronologically, as if it were a memoir. Almost everything in the house involves queuing, not surprising since Olaf’s mother Anne gives birth, by one count, 27 times. The dominating presence in the novel, other than its narrator, is Olaf’s ultra-French father, Martin Montcocq. Spending his youth in both occupied France and a state of satyrisis, with marriage he becomes monogamous. While he is a loving, brilliant, highly creative father, M. Montcocq veers between grandiose gestures of generosity and the austerity he inherited from his wartime childhood. One year he buys toothbrushes for all his students and in another gives them bicycles. At the same time, he forces his children to eat cheese made from his wife’s breast milk and to eat burgers cooked out of her offspring’s placenta. No bodily function or fluid fails to make a visceral appearance.
Olaf’s own excesses do not so much match as mirror his father’s. Sex obsessively possesses him, His polymorphous masturbation engages walls, wallets, furniture, and beyond. In college he finds himself in two successive relationships with women who harbor and eventually reveal some major-league kinks (sex with eggs and vegetables is a minor example.) Martiny makes all of these graphic descriptions enjoyable rather than just gross by maintaining both a comic distance and linguistic virtuosity.
This is a literary novel, complete with post-modern meta-textual self-commentary. Olaf loves to collapse hierarchies, so we encounter allusions to hosts of writers and texts from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to Joyce and the Joycean. At the same time, the novel alludes to dozens of pop icons, many movies and their stars, often in very funny ways. The narrative mainly focuses on deviant domesticity and as such is largely apolitical. As counterbalance, each chapter begins and ends with a brief selection of highlights from the year it covers, which range from the tragic to the farcical, often tongue-in-cheek. The round up from 1987 reads in part
“Iraqi war planes drop mustard-gas bombs on Iranian residential areas. . . 11 people are killed by the Provisional IRA at a Remembrance Day service at Enniskillen . . . Starbucks coffee begins to spread across America.”
He then skips into births and deaths of the creative and famous, such as Andy Warhol. Olaf surmises that readers may take his annual summaries as a “postmodernist whim, a contextualizing advice, self-aggrandizement, self-belittling statement of relativity, or the author trying to look globally committed.” Disarmingly, the narrator agrees, in part, with all surmises. In fact, the novel, in a very lighthearted way, follows Wordsworth’s practice in the 1805 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads by trying to simultaneously create the terms and to highlight the themes by which the work will be judged, both positively and negatively. This works well because Martiny acknowledges his own literary conceits.
While wildness continues throughout, the final chapters slow the previously frenetic pace as Olaf reflects on his goal to be a writer. The essence is that he can find no physical or psychic space in his teeming home. He opts to go to Paris, intending to sleep under bridges while learning his craft. His mother is appalled at his plans to be a literary bum, but his father is joyous at his son’s bold adventure.
One lovely quality of the novel is its generosity and compassion towards almost everyone. In retrospect, Olaf judges his parenting, despite and because of its extravagant eccentricity, as “better than good enough.” One might say the same for Mr. Martiny ‘s own fostering of his first unruly but highly literary offspring. - Peter Harris

Just a little over halfway through Erik Martiny’s debut novel, the protagonist-narrator, Olaf Montcocq, deep in the throes of adolescent literary self-emergence, explains how he welcomed the prospect of being sent abroad for a year as a teenager “to experience another school system, get a fresh perspective on things and learn to be more autonomous.” While he is “not too eager to leave Ireland just yet”, he says, “the prospect of being able to write an entire short story in peace, of having a whole room to [himself] and not having to queue makes [him] finally agree to set off for France”.
By the time the reader gets to this point in Martiny’s highly entertaining and fast-paced narrative, one realises that it is, for all of its comic high jinks, an intellectually engaged and engaging work. This is to be expected given Olaf’s immediate family background – his father is a professor at University College Cork in the south of Ireland – but Olaf is himself also an academic in the making. He is a literary scholar, to be precise, though he is also tormented (as many literary scholars are) by the desire to make art. So we encounter Olaf, towards the end of the work, in a situation where he has “read so many articles, gargled so much jargon, that there’s a knot in [his] tongue and a crumpling in [his] soul.” In a sense, then, The Pleasures of Queuing is a book about what happens when one attempts to untie this “knot”: to unravel and tease out the strings that bind and sometimes restrain the discourses of “literature” and “criticism” as they relate to each other.
There are many ways in which this project could have been undertaken. From Terry Eagleton’s The Function of Criticism (1984) to Rónán MacDonald’s The Death of the Critic (2007), many influential literary critics have sought to critique the institutions and practices of criticism from inside the academy. Writers have done it too, of course, and the list of novels in which academia provides both setting and theme is a long one, including some of the best novelists of recent decades, such as Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, Julie Schumacher, Donna Tartt, and John Williams. Martiny’s book, from its opening pages, is an uproarious and irreverent exposure of male literary self-consciousness, not just within the academy but within the home. Olaf’s desire to find “a whole room to [himself]” is a clear allusion to Virginia Woolf, for example, who wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” in A Room of One’s Own (1929). Olaf desires a room because he cannot find space to write in the house he shares with his parents and several siblings, but his need to have “a whole room to himself” reflects a hilarious lack of self-understanding on the part of the protagonist. In the character of Olaf, in other words, Martiny satirises the male academic author for whom the ghosts of Woolf, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and many others, are conjured as reassuring presences in a personal pantheon that serves no other purpose than to boost the protagonist’s ego.
This is hard on Olaf – it is not at all clear that he ever really gets it, even after the ghosts of these and other writers appear before him to offer advice in the final episode of the novel – but how else should one take this character and the accounts he gives us of his various adventures in living “the literary life”? Granted, these are funny, often darkly so, and Martiny has a knack for comedy that often produces side-splitting results. “When all is said and done”, however, as Olaf says at one point, “it is our father’s reading of Camus and the experience of enduring fleas that makes me want to become a writer.” He continues: “Writing seems like the perfect way of turning bad into good, pain into pleasure, weariness into wonder, a way of transmuting shit into gold when shit happens as it inevitably does”. There is still an awful lot of “shit” to be processed in Olaf’s life – and in the world around him. Each chapter of the book begins and ends with a list of shitty historical facts – “The USA, the USSR and France test nuclear missiles […] Charles Manson is convicted of murder”, for example – but these are scarcely registered by Olaf or those around him, whether in the home, at university, or anywhere else. Instead, we are told by Olaf early in the narrative that these are nothing more than “short French news bulletins provided in translation [as] condensed samples of the informative noise pollution that pervades [the] house in Bishopstown, County Cork, Ireland” where the Montcocq family resides.
What we have here, in other words, is a seriously funny novel that wants us to take seriously the fact that it is funny – without being too serious about it. It could be an error, but at one point in the text the narrator imagines the reader wondering “[w]here, if anywhere, is this factional memoir even going?” (emphasis added). If The Pleasures of Queuing is “factional” – not “fictional” – then it is one of the most candid literary autobiographies ever written. Whether it is a work of pure fiction or not, however, it is undoubtedly one of the funniest narratives to be written in recent years about growing up and coming-of-age in the south of Ireland in the last few decades of the twentieth century. It has parallels with the works of contemporary Irish writers such as Kevin Barry and Julian Gough, but its world ultimately extends beyond Cork, out into the broader Irish and, indeed, Franco-Irish cultural and social sphere of reference and beyond – and back again, into the “small republic” of the family. That term (“small republic”) belongs to John McGahern, whose work provides one of the epigraphs to The Pleasures of Queuing, but it is given new life here in a novel that seems destined to become some kind of cult classic. - Philip Coleman

Toward the end of Erik Martiny's The Pleasures of Queuing its narrator writes, “There should really be a literary prize for the best novel ever written by a writer afflicted with ADD who has radios broadcasting from every room in the house, every area of the brain, an exponential, incremental number of siblings, a hawk-watchful mother, and an increasingly eccentric and money-stinting father.” This sentence describes some of the most appealing qualities of the novel. It can hardly be said to have a sequential plot; nor can it, despite one chapter being devoted to each of its narrator’s first twenty-four years, exactly be described as a Bildungsroman. Each chapter plunges into a different topic—infestation by fleas, dismantling and rebuilding a 2CV in the house, a kleptomaniac girlfriend who urinates in every receptacle in the house, infantile incest. It coheres mainly by virtue of its exaggerated, Rabelaisian portrayal of family life: this is the novel’s warm, pulsing heart. The sentence also tells us that this is a highly self-conscious, self-referential, literary novel. It opens with an account of the narrator’s conception, and the allusion of Tristram Shandy is characteristic. Each chapter opens and closes with a list of world events in the year in question; the narrator correctly guesses that the reader will interpret this as “a postmodernist whim,” which he half concedes but claims it also represents the French radio news bulletins that pervaded the family home. 
French because the father is “a Frenchman of archetypal proportions,” a hypersexual but uxorious soixant-huitard whose marriage to a devout but equally sexually enthusiastic Irishwoman produces approximately twenty-four children. The evocation of the increasingly thronging household, with its consequent forced intimacy and plethora of bodily fluids, is what gives the novel life. It is grotesque in the Bakhtinian sense, its most memorable episode being the father’s way of coping with his wife’s breast-milk, too abundant even for her many offspring. Being a hoarder, an environmentalist, and obsessively hostile to waste, he manufactures yogurt and cheese out of the excess—not to mention feeding his children placenta burgers. At its best, the novel’s language, inventive and exuberant, echoes this abundance. The title refers ironically to the necessity of waiting one’s turn for everything in such a household, especially the toilet. The emphasis is on the inconveniences, discomforts, and squabbles inevitably generated in a large family, and grotesquely magnified in this one, but the dominant feeling is nevertheless one of love and vitality: “the happiest and most fully functional dysfunctional family I know.” 
It may be that the book’s soft center, its overflow of fertility, milk, semen, urine, and every imaginable fluid, and the emotional equivalent, made it need a carapace of postmodern smartness. By the same token, halfway through it I was inwardly congratulating the author on not writing a Bildungsroman but allowing his narrator to take second place to the family which is normally left behind in such narratives. Later chapters do take more conventional form, with episodes devoted to the hero’s education, foreign travel, and, of course, experiences with women. The dominant mode of these however is still Rabelaisian—the performance-artist girlfriend who manipulates eggs and vegetables in her vagina, the one who urinates in his mother’s handbag, or, most memorably, his capture by a group of German skinheads who get him drunk and persuade him to join in a protest against the half-demolished Berlin Wall that I will leave the reader to discover.  
The tendency of the novel to drift into a kind of Bildungsroman, and its postmodern literariness, come together in the disappointing last chapter where, on a ferry to France with intention of writing a novel while living on the roof of a building or under a bridge, he encounters his literary heroes and heroines enjoying a kind of Olympian afterlife in the form of a sauna. This is so knowing that it almost turns itself inside out, and this reader is left returning to what the hero is leaving behind, and to the insistence that “love is a greasy, blissfully smelly thing . . . Don’t forget that, poor brain-washed reader, you know it in your heart.” - Neil Roberts

Named after a poem by e e cummings, birthed by a devout and fertile Irish mother and fathered by a priapic Frenchman of ‘archetypal proportions’ Olaf Montcocq screams into existence at Erinville Hospital in 1971.
J’accuse writer Erik Martiny – notice his Scandinavian prénom and his Gallic nom de famille –of indulging in exaggerated semi-autobiography. But he specifies, in the subtitle, that it is a novel and notes that any person resembling the entirely fictitious characters should flee to Brazil.
The parameters are set. The world is built. And it is a world familiar to many of this paper’s readers. A house in suburban Cork, a large number of children, regular attendance at mass, local day schools followed by a sojourn at University College Cork.   Indeed it is a world, very familiar, to Dr. Martiny himself – he even chooses to quote Lee Jenkins, his erstwhile Professor of English and Head of School at UCC, on the back cover.
Perhaps Jenkins, joint editor of The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry, supervised Martiny’s doctorate on Contemporary Poetry but, at any rate, she loves this novel saying that it is ‘hilarious and heartfelt in equal measure’ and that it is a ‘story of bohemia and bountiful creation with the verve and verbal inventiveness of early Philip Roth’. Some accolade. But hers is a brilliant assessment of the novel. Jenkins shows appreciation of Martiny by emulating his style using poetic devices such as alliteration, assonance, repetition and word patterns to produce something as bouncy as a blown-up condom.
Written in the first person The Pleasures of Queueing begins, like Tristram Shandy, with its protagonist getting conceived, in this case after three hours in the missionary position. It ends with a surreal scene on the Irish Sea in which Olaf meets a number of dead writers in a cross channel ferry sauna. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen and George Orwell, along with a chorus of self-styled Anglo-Irish writers, join forces to give him succour and encouragement.
Lurking in the background of this novel I can see a putative doctorate in which a widely read, disciplined graduate might plough each chapter for clues to its inspirational muse. Olaf Montcocq, Erik Martiny’s alter-ego, could have delved into the likelihood of James Joyce or Samuel Beckett. But, no, of course not. Olaf Montcocq, like Erik Martiny, is writing this novel, The Pleasures of Queueing. Maybe I should write the thesis myself?
Queueing in the Montcocq house often, as in Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, involves the bathroom but also the dining/kitchen/sitting room tables. The 25 siblings need space to do their homework. Girls outnumber boys. Singletons outnumber twins, but only just. Martiny presents the home as a madhouse, describing it as ‘totally and felicitously dysfunctional’.
Anna Montcocq is a goddess of fecundity lactating an endless supply of breast milk for her endless supply of children but so prolific that there is plenty remaining to be pumped out and manufactured into soft cheese by their thrifty father, Martin. He turns out a type of Roquefort as well as Irish Cheddar. These delicacies are stored in the fridge and placed between doorstep slices of bread for packed lunches.
Other secretions, as can be expected, seep or spurt. The second brother is nicknamed Brian de Sperm and at one point the pages of the Norton Anthology of Poetry in English get stuck together after an in-lecture mutual masturbation session. After that Robert Herrick’s famous lyric ‘Corinna’s Going a-Maying’ is ‘forever inaccessible’.
Martiny tops and tails each chapter with a list of selected world events and births and deaths. In this way he provides cultural context for his bildungsroman. But for unfortunates who were not brought up in the city of Cork The Pleasures of Queueing, like Lisa McInerney’s Ryan Cusak novels, provides an intriguing insight into what it must be like. - Josephine Fenton

Erik Martiny’s debut novel is a witty account of the trials and tribulations of a Franco-Irish family living in Cork from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s. It is chronicles the sexual escapades of the parents, which result in the mother giving birth to no less than 27 children, which causes mayhem in the morning and at meal times. With all these people around privacy is impossible: in fact, even gaining access to a toilet in such a highly populated home is problematic.
Martiny can definitely spin a yarn and has a gift for comedy. He begins each chapter with a short summary of what is happening in the world in the year about to be covered. Incidents that occur within the family assume some of the epic qualities of the big news stories of the time. The father, a French academic working in University College Cork, is described as someone who jealously holds on to his “Frenchitude”. The mother is a pious Irish Catholic who goes to Mass three times on week days and twice on Sunday. What distinguishes her from other traditional Catholics is “the almost unreserved pagan relish she has for sexual intercourse”, only with her husband, of course!
The Pleasures of Queueing could well be remembered as the first published work of a famous artist. Equally, its author might never make the difficult breakthrough in the literary world. Although the stylistic pyrotechnics and gargantuan exaggeration can grate at times, there is nonetheless a quality that draws one to the text and indicates that Martiny may well be a force to be reckoned with. - EAMON MAHER


Fe Orellana - journalist for a sensationalist newspaper, moves through the passages and galleries of Santiago, Chile, seeking to discover the mystery concealed by the homeless people, amputees and madmen who inhabit them.

Fe Orellana, Woman Hanging from a Rope, Trans. by Jessica Sequeira, Floricanto Press, 2019.

Marina (story)

Beatriz, a journalist for a sensationalist newspaper, moves through the passages and galleries of Santiago, Chile, seeking to discover the mystery concealed by the homeless people, amputees and madmen who inhabit them. There are no drugs, weapons or financial transactions in this case, unlike in others she has investigated. None of her successful feature stories have what this one does: networks of child trafficking, photographs that attempt to emulate Araki and a company of actors with extreme ideas about art, which is why she feels an uncontrollable attraction for her investigation that can only be compared to the pleasure she experiences when practicing the ancient erotic art of shibari. In perfect sync at every specific point on the plane, as in a grid over a map of the city, pursuers and pursued observe and shift positions like pieces on a chessboard over the streets of a dark metropolis.
A rope ties them together. The same one from which Beatriz hangs.

Woman Hanging from a Rope is the first novel by Fe Orellana, in which he crosses the classic noir novel with the nightmare, paranoia and absurdity of Santiago to represent the reality of the Latin American city. Fe Orellana (Santiago, Chile, 1991) is a writer and translator. He has published the novel Woman Hanging from a Rope (PorNos, 2017) and his work appears in ☺the anthology of contemporary Chilean fiction Santiago (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, Manchester, 2019). He has received the Roberto Bolaño Novel Prize and the Literary Creation Grant from the National Council of Culture and the Arts, as well as the Gabriela Mistral Story Prize. Currently he lives in California, where he is completing an MFA in Creative Writing at San Diego State University. Latino Fiction book, Latino literature book, Chilean Fiction in Translation book, Latino literature Chile social life book, Hispanic literature book


William Melvin Kelley - An African-American reads James Joyce might be an easy way to describe this novel, as Kelley takes us on a strange trip, playing Joycean linguistic games along the way.A strange amalgam of ideas, scenes suggestive of potential for fuller development, ambiguous events, and suggestions that many or all events are either dreams or some kind of research project/experiment, all interspersed with odd language-play that includes puns; phonetic substitutions; alt-grammar; spelling, punctuation, and spacing trickery; and cryptically mangled dialect

Image result for William Melvin Kelley, Dunfords Travels Everywheres,
William Melvin Kelley, Dunfords Travels Everywheres, Doubleday, 1970.
borrow it here

An African-American reads James Joyce might be an easy way to describe this novel, as Kelley takes us on a strange trip, playing Joycean linguistic games along the way. The first part takes place in an unnamed European country, which smells a bit like France and where the natives speak a variation of Esperanto. The country has apartheid but based not on skin colour but on the colour of the clothes you happen to have chosen to wear that morning (and you can’t change till the next day). In other words, apartheid is arbitrary. Chig Dunford is an African-American in the middle of this. The second part of the book abruptly switches tone, with the story of Chig’s return to the US by ocean liner (where he finds chained African slaves being transported) intermingled with a story of a dentist persuading Carlyle Bedlow to seduce his (the dentist’s) wife so that he (the dentist) can dump his wife, pay her less alimony and run off with his assistant, Maria. Not only do the stories change so does the language, varying from conventional English to African-American dialect to Joycean language. An interesting way to point out how racism is taken for granted and ignored. - The Modern Novel

Readers of Mr. Kelley's earlier novels will recognize his concern with black experience--the quality of estrangement and the substance of that unique legacy--and they will remember, too, the Dunfords and the Bedlows, a relatively well-to-do family and a poor one, who figured so prominently in Dancers on the Shore (1964). This time the exploration turns inward, into the minds of Chig Dunford and Carlyle Bedlow. Chig has become a successful academic, funded to study 19th century literature in Europe, Carlyle a Harlem hustler; but though they seem to have little common ground, their deepening fantasies converge in the richly snarled dream narratives that bridge their separate stories. The stuff of these dreams is their shared subconscious heritage; the medium, however, is an invented idiom of Joycean near-homonyms whose black accent and oral tone are unmistakable, but which is exhaustingly difficult to read--despite the Fact that it holds the key to the rest of the work. This apparent stubbornness arises from the author's realization that the English language has itself been a factor in black disinheritance, to which an epigraph from Joyce applies: "". . . His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. . . . My soul frets in the shadow of his language."" Patient readers will find this inventive, sophisticated, and serious; others will not read enough to form an impression. - Kirkus Reviews

Well this is embarrassing. Here's a novel I paid serious BURIED money on behalf of, a novel straight out of The Wake, whose introduction to me lay direct=next to Barthelme, Federman, Burroughs ; some tough company ;; in a chapter titled "Everybody's Joyce". And I'm looking here at SIX (.6.) ratings and ZERO (.0.) R/reviews and but one Listopia listing (just saw that one and voted this one up). And but I just can't get excited about it. Like one gets clobbered when digging into There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden which is just huge. I can't quite rave about it like one raves about Federman. I'll adVOCate for it, but not like for Miss MacIntosh. What I mean -- it's a fairly straightforward novel with two threads ;; I think of those threads maybe more as tableaux than as plots only because maybe ploddy=people would complain if we allowed consideration in that direction. But what really calls attention to this nugget and the reason it's disappeared from the literary landscape are the several dream sequences which are written in a very well=wrought Wakese. And really aren't to be missed. And are to be studied. And annotated upon. But clearly, if the dreaming of X and the fiction=experience of X are related, that relation will only be revealed in a second and third readings which I had intended to do, but, well, see above lack of excitement. But please what this book does need is at least an eighth and ninth and tenth gr=reader. Do have your annotating pen at ready when you pick this up. [I understand there's an e-edition available from one of those internet=libraries]
Kelley's got a few other novels which will deserve our collective attention.
Sample ::
[Just prior to the outbreak of the first Wakese ::] Where on earth had those words come from? He tried always to choose his words with care, to hold back even anger until he found the correct words. Luckily, he had never suffered a pronunciation problem. His family lived in Harlem; he had grown up there, but had no trouble saying that, they, these, those or them.Then :: "Witches oneWay tspike Mr. Chigyle's Languish, n curryng him back tRealty, recoremince wi hUnmisereaducation. Maya we now go on wi yReconstruction, Mr. Chuggle? Awick now? Goodd, a'god Moanng agen everybubbahs n babys among you, d'yonLadys in front who always come vear too, days ago, dhisMorning we wddeal, in dhis Sagmint of Lecturian Angleash 161, w'all the daisiastrous effects, the foxnoxious bland of stimili, the infortunelessnesses of circusdances which weak to worsen the phistorystematical intrafricanical firmly structure of our distinct coresins: The Blafringro-Arumericans." [not proofread in my transcription. sorries.]
Which, well, is just one more piece of evidence that Wakese is the language of the post-colonial world. The Irish Finnegans Wake. The Yoruba Tutuola. Desani's All About H. Hatterr. Kelley's Dunfords Travels Everywheres. Most of Our South Of The Border. Which reminds me, the three epigraphs to our novel ::
Melvin B. Tolson --:
The Futurafrique, flight-furbished ebony astride
velvet-paved miles, vies with the
sunflower magnificence of the Oriens, challenges the snow-lily
diadem of the Europa.....
James Joyce --
The language in which we are speaking
is his before it is mine...
I cannot speak or write these words
without unrest of spirit.
His language, so familiar and so foreign,
will always be for me an acquired speech...
My soul frets in the shadow of his language.
Amos Tutuola --
We slept in that a bush, but when it was about two o'clock in the night, there we saw a creature, either he was a spirit or other harmful creature, we could not say, he was coming toward us, he was white as if painted with white paint, he was white from foot to the topmost of his body, but he had no head or feet and hands like human-beings and he got one large eye on his topmost. He was long about 1/4 of a mile and his diameter was about six feet, he resembled a white pillar. At the same time that I saw him coming toward us, I thought what I could do to stop him, then remembered a charm which was given me by my father before he died. -  @ goodreads           

A strange amalgam of ideas, scenes suggestive of potential for fuller development, ambiguous events, and suggestions that many or all events are either dreams or some kind of research project/experiment, all interspersed with odd language-play that includes puns; phonetic substitutions; alt-grammar; spelling, punctuation, and spacing trickery; and cryptically mangled dialect. It had enough ideas to intrigue me and hold my interest so I would come back to it after a long hiatus. Its appeal is in its mystery and its suggestions for further narrative development. But I can't say that it fulfills its promises, and some ideas seem like throwaways. One could make quite a project of studying it, though. I'm not sure I'm up for a reread yet. Just writing a translation of some of the more cryptic passages and then rereading one's own translation might help work some things out. I admire the author's chutzpah in not giving any flying doughnuts about making sense or being reader-accessible. So let's say I had a lukewarm reaction overall, and I still have one arched eyebrow. -   @ goodreads   

The experimental novelist William Melvin Kelley has confounded critical efforts to situate his work within the aesthetic and political parameters of Black Arts. Though Kelley was a contemporary of the movement, he wrote fiction that undermined its belief that literature ought to serve as a mouthpiece for “the people.” Yet Kelley’s two late novels, dεm (1967) and Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970), evinced the same qualities of performative textuality that Black Arts practitioners had advanced for their cause. By directing his publisher to follow his typescripts as closely as possible, Kelley created typographic experiments that made blackness a feature of readers’ engagement with the printed details of certain pages. Despite this convergence with Black Arts literary strategies, Kelley remained a maverick in the uses he identified for such experiments. Like other postmodern satirists of the era, he was a critic as much of racial indivisibility among blacks as he was of race’s invisibility to whites. In his late fiction, then, Kelley used typographic play to subvert not only racial but class assumptions about what a “black” voice ought to sound like. - Kinohi Nishikawa
William Melvin Kelley, A Different Drummer, Doubleday, 1962.  / riverrun, 2018.
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Set in a mythical backwater Southern town, A Different Drummer is the extraordinary story of Tucker Caliban, a quiet, determined descendant of an African chief who for no apparent reason destroys his farm and heads for parts unknown--setting off a mass exodus of the state's entire Black population.
Nearly three decades offer its first publication, A Different Drummer remains one of the most trenchant, imaginative, and hard-hitting works of fiction to come out of the bitter struggle for African-American civil rights.

June, 1957. One hot afternoon in the backwaters of the Deep South, a young black farmer named Tucker Caliban salts his fields, shoots his horse, burns his house, and heads north with his wife and child. His departure sets off an exodus of the state’s entire black population, throwing the established order into brilliant disarray. Told from the points of view of the white residents who remained, A Different Drummer stands, decades after its first publication in 1962, as an extraordinary and prescient triumph of satire and spirit.

In 1962, aged just 24, William Melvin Kelley's debut novel A Different Drummer earned him critical comparisons to James Baldwin and William Faulkner. Fifty-five years later, author and journalist Kathryn Schulz happened upon the novel serendipitously and was inspired to write the New Yorker article 'The Lost Giant of American Literature', included as a foreword to this edition.
June, 1957. One afternoon, in the backwater town of Sutton, a young black farmer by the name of Tucker Caliban matter-of-factly throws salt on his field, shoots his horse and livestock, sets fire to his house and departs the southern state. And thereafter, the entire African-American population leave with him.
The reaction that follows is told across a dozen chapters, each from the perspective of a different white townsperson. These are boys, girls, men and women; either liberal or conservative, bigoted or sympathetic - yet all of whom are grappling with this spontaneous, collective rejection of subordination.
A lost masterpiece republished for 2018, A Different Drummer is for readers who have been waiting for the next rediscovered classic.

Kelley could have made this a straightforward satire but then the book would not have had the impact it does. It is not the first or, indeed, the best book to look at the condition of African-Americans in the United States but it is certainly one of the most interesting and, undeservedly, has not received the recognition it deserves.
It is set in a fictional and unnamed state which clearly approximates to Mississippi. At the beginning an old white man tells the story of how all the African-Americans left the state, leaving it now the only state without any Negroes. Most of the rest of the novel is in the form of flashback, with different players (white and black) giving their account of what happened. It starts with the arrival in the state of a slave ship, with a huge, powerful African. No-one can control him and he escapes but Dewey Willson, the patriarch has already bought him and forbids anyone from shooting him and sets out to find him. He cannot. The African then appears at Willson’s house and frees his slaves. Eventually, after many slaves have been freed, the African is tricked by a former slave and is killed, leaving his son as Dewey Willson’s slave. It is the great-grandson of the son who will lead the exodus. - The Modewrn Novel read more here

The first officially recorded use of “woke” as a political term was in 1962, in an article by young African-American writer and teacher William Melvin Kelley. In the same year, he published his debut, A Different Drummer. It won him comparisons with Faulkner, then slipped into obscurity until this year, when a New Yorker article brought it back into the public eye, and sparked a bidding war.
It begins with Tucker Caliban, who shoots his livestock, sets fire to his house and leaves the fictional deep south state he calls home without a backward glance. Soon every other black man and woman in the state has gone, filing on to buses and into cars with carefully blank faces.
Kelley boldly tells his story from the perspective of the white residents, who spin stories of Confederate generals and formidable slaves, speak of their dreams and their youth and try to rationalise this modern exodus. This fierce and brilliant novel is written with sympathy as well as sorrow. It’s a myth packed with real-world resonance, as hope and decency wither in a community that’s as woke as a corpse. -

Mr. Kelley's timely allegory is climaxed by the ""strategic withdrawal"", first of Tucker Callban, then of Tucker's fellow Negroes, from an unnamed, typical cotton-belt state. The concern here is with the events which precipitated that exodus. ""Tucker was feeling his African blood"", surmise some town racists. And that would indicate that there's a little bit of Serendip even in the heart of Dixie. The first of the re-rooted Cailieus had possessed such monumental strength, was of such epic proportion, that it had taken a whole slaver's crew to control him. He was called ""The African"". Fresh off the ship, he gathered up his chains ""like a woman grabs up her skirts"", fled from captivity, and led an band of escaped slaves who sought to free all of their race. The African was finally shot and his baby boy taken from him to beget a progeny of progressively smaller men. Ironically, many generations later, the tiny, bespeckled Tucker Callban is his only true heir. Tired of his second-class citizenship in the South of today, he decides to recover what it is that the Negro has lost. In a superbly written scene of destructive nobility, Tucker salts his land, kills his livestock, and burns his house. He must begin anew away from a legacy of sacrifice and ""good-niggerism"". Not a flawless novel, this is nevertheless a stunning work and one which explores all kinds of Negroes, from Oxford derived to Uncle Tom survived. It is an Odyssey of the Negro gone full circle, back again to the stature of the African. - Kirkus Reviews

Every so often, a “forgotten classic” is rediscovered around which the literary world rallies with praise and predictions of a “Stoner effect” – a reference to the reissue of John Willams’s 1965 novel, which went on to become an international bestseller. Early this year, it happened to the 1962 debut novel by William Melvin Kelley, an African American and member of the Black Arts Movement, who died last year.
A Different Drummer more than lives up to the hype, both in terms of its literary accomplishment and in the power of its political vision.
Kelley’s story is set in the deep south, in 1957, amid the racial hostility and resistance of the early civil rights era; but he also draws our eye to the complicated nexus of oppression, bigotry, reparation and guilt inherited by white Americans after the abolition of slavery.
The story revolves around the Willsons, a former slave-owning family whose latest scion, David Willson, has sold a piece of their former plantation to his servant, Tucker Caliban, the descendant of a rebel slave. The sale sets off a chain reaction and leads to a mass exodus of the town’s black population.
Significantly Kelley’s black characters, including Tucker, are seen only through the eyes of the white majority, their motives never explicitly revealed. So when Tucker salts the fields he has bought (ie land on which his forefathers were oppressed), burns down the house and kills his livestock before leaving town, the reason for his actions have “yet to be determined”.
Kelley instead delves into the minds of the Willson clan past and present, including David, now head of the family business but who once wrote against segregation for a radical newspaper, his wife, Camille, and two children – tracing their psychological trajectory from slave owners to benevolent masters, and then campaigners, of sorts, for racial equality.
Some chapters reach beyond the Willsons to the wider townsfolk, and here we see an America that holds fast to its moral superiority over black people. There is as much outrage as confusion over the departure of black locals, even if the governor’s statement claims: “We never needed them, never wanted them, and we’ll get along fine without them.”
The Willsons, for all their past violence and residual prejudices, are drawn with sensitivity. Their daughter Dymphna feels sisterly towards Tucker’s wife, Bethrah, who is all the more trusted because “she hardly looked like she was coloured, except maybe her nose”.
Published two years after Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, A Different Drummer also depicts the racial complexities of pre-civil rights southern life through children’s eyes. Kelley’s youngsters observe adult violence and bigotry without understanding it fully; we see their incomprehension of a changing America in which a man like Tucker must now be referred to as a “negro”, not a “nigger”.
Yet for all of Kelley’s sympathetic characterisation, his ending returns us to the horrors of race hate. A new introduction to the novel ascribes Kelley’s literary decline to the fact that “many white readers didn’t want a black writer telling them what they thought, especially when so much of it was withering”.
Today the book offers us an unflinching study of the southern white American psyche at the cusp of the civil rights movement: its belligerence against change, the incomprehension and anger. It is woeful to think that almost 60 years later, Kelley’s story seems just as timely and as urgent, but what a gift to literature that we have rediscovered it. -

What would have happened if black Americans refused to accept a subordinated life in the South in the 1950s? This is the premise of William Melvin Kelley’s superb debut novel, first published in 1962. The New Yorker wrote the book aged 24 at the height of the civil rights movement in the US but chose to consider the struggle in another way, imagining a different path to equality for his fellow African-Americans.
Like John Williams’s Stoner or Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, A Different Drummer is being published as a rediscovered classic, whose return into print is a fascinating yarn in its own right.
The American journalist Kathryn Schulz happened upon the novel after following road signs with arrows off the highway to a jumble sale near Chesapeake Bay. In an excellent piece for the New Yorker earlier this year, she relates the find: “I went to browse, and spotted, first thing, a slender volume that was shelved the wrong way round – binding in, pages out. I pulled it down, turned it over and found myself holding a beautiful clothbound first edition of Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama.” I flipped it open and there on the frontispiece it said: Inscribed especially for William Kelley – on your first visit to my house – welcome!”
Thrilled with her literary treasure, Schultz goes on to “follow more arrows” and hunts down a copy of Kelley’s debut. It proves another great find, and a win for today’s readers across the world, who can delve into an imaginative, brilliantly observed world of the 20th-century Deep South in turmoil.
Meaningful land
The title of the novel comes from a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” The titular drummer is the book’s hero, Tucker Caliban, a young African-American man who in 1957 has just bought his first farm from the white landowning Willsons. That the Willsons have previously owned generations of the Caliban family makes the sale all the more meaningful, as does the exact plot of land Tucker chooses: “It had once been the southwest boundary of the Willson Plantation, on which his great-grandfather and grandfather had been slaves and then workers. And it was told how the General had ridden out to this spot each day to watch the sun go down.”
This is no ordinary general but Confederate General Dewey Willson, born in the fictional town of Sutton in 1825, a man who represents the brutal war waged by some southern states to keep the institution of slavery. After a brave and fierce slave, known mythically as The African, escapes at an auction, the General tracks him down and kills him in the capturing. One of Kelley’s ingenious literary choices is to render Willson courageous and ethical in his own privileged white way, a man who regrets the nefarious means by which he tracked the African and who saves the man’s infant son from being bludgeoned to death by his father with a rock with his last breath. This baby is christened Caliban by Willson, with a fitting nod to Shakespeare’s colonists and their claims, beginning a bond between both families that blurs the lines between slavery, kinship and love over the next century.
Caustic humour
Broken into 11 chapters, A Different Drummer is frequently told from the perspective of white characters, which in the hands of another writer could mean further marginalisation of a voice already so suppressed in literature, but Kelley deliberately gives the book over to white narrators – who range from brutally to casually racist – to make the struggles of his own race all the more impactful. Lauded in his day for his satirical explorations of race relations in America – the OED credits him for coining the term “woke” – Kelley delivers his observations with caustic humour and surprising compassion. The comparisons of his debut to the books of James Baldwin and Faulkner are justified.  
From the young white boy Mister Leland, who knows that Tucker is different from him but who loves him anyway, to the current generation of Willsons, Dewey III and Dymphna, who consider the Calibans near siblings, to the redneck townsman Bobby-Joe and his ugly, dangerous logic, the mentality of the American south is intensely examined.
The plot hinges on Tucker’s extraordinary decision to destroy the land and house he has just purchased after years of toiling. It is a shocking move that prompts a reaction of biblical proportions, an exodus of all African-Americans that leaves the unnamed state symbolically in tatters. A Different Drummer is a fascinating account of a man, weary of words and politicking, who makes a seemingly nonsensical decision in the eyes of society. And yet, as a response to centuries of injustice for his people, it proves an eminently sensible action. - Sarah Gilmartin

“[A] lost giant of American literature. . . . Brilliant.” —The New Yorker 
“Radical and important.” —Financial Times
 “Kelley blended fantasy and fact to construct an alternative world whose sweep and complexity drew comparisons to James Joyce and William Faulkner.” —The New York Times
“A rare first novel; dynamic, imaginative, and accomplished.” —Chicago Sunday Tribune
“Powerful. . . . Unflinching. . . . A gift to literature.” —The Observer
“So brilliant is this initial novel that one must consider Mr. Kelley for tentative future placement among the paragons of American letters.” —Boston Sunday Herald“Beautifully written and thought-provoking.” —Baltimore Evening Sun“This first novel just perhaps could play a part in changing our history.” —Kansas City Star“An astounding achievement . . . Timeless, mythic. . . . Still relevant and powerful today.” —The Sunday Times (London)
“Breathtakingly good. . . . Must be one of the most assured debuts of all time.” —Sjón, author of CoDex 1962
“An imaginative, brilliantly observed world of the 20th-century Deep South in turmoil. . . . Kelley delivers his observations with caustic humour and surprising compassion. The comparisons of his debut to the books of James Baldwin and Faulkner are justified.” —The Irish Times “A rediscovered classic of African American literature. . . . A powerful novel that weaves intricate themes like racism, systemized oppression and identity together.” —Bookriot

I didn’t know who William Kelley was when I found that book but, like millions of Americans, I knew a term he is credited with first committing to print. “If You’re Woke, You Dig It” read the headline of a 1962 Op-Ed that Kelley published in the New York Times, in which he pointed out that much of what passed for “beatnik” slang (“dig,” “chick,” “cool”) originated with African-Americans.
A fiction writer and occasional essayist, Kelley was, himself, notably woke. A half century before the poet Claudia Rankine used her MacArthur “genius” grant to establish an institute partly dedicated to the study of whiteness, Kelley turned his considerable intellect and imagination to the question of what it is like to be white in this country, and what it is like, for all Americans, to live under the conditions of white supremacy—not just the dramatic cross-burning, neo-Nazi manifestations of it common to his time and our own but also the everyday forms endemic to our national culture.
Kelley first addressed these issues at length in his début novel, “A Different Drummer.” Published three weeks after that Times Op-Ed, when he was twenty-four, it promptly earned him comparisons to an impressive range of literary greats, from William Faulkner to Isaac Bashevis Singer to James Baldwin. It also got him talked about, together with the likes of Alvin Ailey and James Earl Jones, as among the most talented African-American artists of his generation.
When I read “A Different Drummer,” I understood why. Geographically, the novel is set in a small town called Sutton, outside the city of New Marsails, in an imaginary Southern state wedged between Mississippi and Alabama. Temporally, it is set in June, 1957, when a young African-American farmer named Tucker Caliban salts his fields, slaughters his horse and cow, burns down his house, and departs the state—whereupon its entire African-American population follows.
It’s a brilliant setup. Our culture has produced countless fantasies about what would have happened if the Civil War had ended differently—chiefly, if the Confederacy had won and slavery had endured. (See, e.g., “The Guns of the South,” “If the South Had Won the Civil War,” and “Underground Airlines.”) But we have a paucity of art that chooses to imagine a different outcome for the civil-rights movement, or alternate universes where African-Americans, from any era, wield not less power but more.
Appropriately, that seizure of power—the sudden refusal of African-Americans to continue living under conditions of subordination—flummoxes the white citizens of Sutton. When “A Different Drummer” opens, one of them, seeking to make sense of the recent events, recounts a harrowing story. Half slave narrative, half tall tale, it concerns a behemoth of a man, known simply as the African, who arrives one day on a slave ship, cradling a baby boy in the crook of his arm. Bound by chains held by at least twenty men, the African is led into town and sold—whereupon he whips around and, with the chains, knocks over his captors and decapitates the auctioneer: “Some folks swear . . . that the head sailed like a cannon ball through the air a quarter mile, bounced another quarter mile, and still had enough steam to cripple a horse some fellow was riding into New Marsails.” Gathering up his chains “like a woman grabs up her skirts,” the African then flees to a nearby swamp and starts conducting raids to free other slaves. Eventually, his nominal owner, led to the hideout by a traitor, kills the African and claims as his own the baby boy: Tucker Caliban’s great-grandfather.
The man who tells this tale maintains that Caliban acted as he did because “the African’s blood” resurged within him. Not all his listeners agree, but they’re hard pressed to offer a better explanation for the recent exodus, or imagine its likely consequences. Some wonder whether wages will be better or worse with a third of the population gone. Others, professing not to care about Caliban and his followers, echo the governor’s statement: “We never needed them, never wanted them, and we’ll get along fine without them.” Still others feel betrayed, in ways they can’t articulate, by the violation of a social compact whose terms they’d never previously bothered to study too closely.
Although the plot of “A Different Drummer” depends on the autonomous actions of African-Americans, the story is told exclusively through the eyes of these white townspeople. This, too, is a smart idea—a kind of fictional affirmation of the historian Lerone Bennett, Jr.,’s claim that “there is no Negro problem in America. The problem of race in America . . . is a white problem.” Moreover, it is wonderfully executed. At twenty-four, Kelley was already a strikingly confident writer, with a sense of humor reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor in stories like “Revelation”: caustic, original, efficacious. He was also a keen observer, and although his story has the emotional proportions of a myth, his sentences reliably feel like real life. Tucker Caliban’s doomed cow is “the color of freshly cut lumber”; to the men watching from outside, the fire he set first appeared climbing a pair of curtains in the center of his home, then “moved on slowly to the other windows like someone inspecting the house to buy it.”
“A Different Drummer” ends in pessimism, less about the fate of black Americans than about the moral potential of white ones. Yet, thanks to it, Kelley’s career began in tremendous optimism. His was the rare first novel that makes future ones seem both inevitable and exciting—and, indeed, he went on to publish four more books in under a decade. But I wasn’t alone in being unfamiliar with them. After his early and fiery start, Kelley largely faded into obscurity—not just before our era but in his own prime. Obscurity, of course, is a common enough fate for authors. But what’s curious about Kelley is that he is seldom read today not just because of the weaknesses in his books but also because of their peculiar, discomfitting strengths. - 
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William Melvin Kelley, Dem, Doubleday, 1967., / Coffee House Press, 2001.
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Originally published in 1967, dem is a classic of the Black Arts Movement. This surrealistic satire lays bare the convoluted and symbiotic relationship between whites and blacks. Coffee House Press is pleased to bring back into print this widely unavailable work.
Upper-middle-class Manhattanite Mitchell Pierce and his wife Tamara enact the twists and turns of human relationships in this startling fable about the intersections of race, class, sex, love, and marriage. Kelley questions the nature and validity of subjective realities as he examines the constraints and consequences of prejudice.
Mitchell is convinced he has it made. With advancement at work, an attractive wife, and a comfortable apartment, he has achieved the 1960s version of the white man’s American dream. Then, slowly but surely, that dream becomes a nightmare, and Mitchell can’t seem to wake up. Did he really find his boss’s wife and children dead in an upstairs bedroom of their suburban home? Did his wife really become pregnant after a brief fling with their black maid’s boyfriend?
Notable as a satiric portrayal of white characters from an African American perspective, this milestone achievement tugs at our ability to suspend disbelief and forces us to reexamine stereotypes from the past and current images in America’s racial divide.

Kelley's 1967 novel is here reprinted as part of the press's Black Arts Movement Series: books from the resurgence of African-American literature during the ’60s and early ’70s. For this edition, John Wright provides a long scholarly introduction placing the novel in its historical context. On dem's first appearance, Kirkus (July 15, 1967, p. 828) noted its episodic form, and its racial schematics, especially in the fourth section, in which a woman gives birth to twins, one black and one white. Overall, though, "some very good writing carries along the excess of symbolism." Finding it more contrived than Kelley's other work, we found it also "more angry," as well as a "powerful and delicate handling of a heavy theme and an unwieldy plot." - Kirkus Reviews

Image result for William Melvin Kelley, A Drop of Patience,

William Melvin Kelley, A Drop of Patience, Doubleday, 1965.
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In A Drop of Patience, William Melvin Kelley tells the searing story of Ludlow Washington, a black jazz musician, with the emotional intensity of the blues. Blind since childhood and put into a state home, Ludlow first learns the piano and later takes up the horn. When at fifteen he is released to the custody of a bandleader, his unmistakable talent takes him on an odyssey from Boone's Cafe, a small dive in New Marsails, to New York where he becomes a leading, visionary jazz musician. This is the coming of age story of a man set apart - by blindness, by race, by artistry - who must learn through adversity not only who he is and whom to trust, but also from where he derives his self worth. The Dark Tower Series brings this neglected classic back into print after an absence of many years. Considered by Stanley Crouch to be one of the finest novels ever written about jazz - an exploration of the African-American experience that evokes comparisons to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man - A Drop of Patience is an exquisite and forceful parable of moral and spiritual blindness and a staggering work of art.
William Melvin Kelley, Dancers on the Shore. Doubleday, 1964.
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This writer (whose A Different Drummer will be remembered) has a unique insight into a segment of American society that is seldom reported without distortion. He is an American Negro and, as he makes clear in his brief preface, he uses his elected role of storyteller to ""ask questions...(to) depict people, not symbols or ideas disguised as people"". In the sixteen pieces collected here, the author tells meaningful stories of people first and only secondarily examines Negro society-- separated by color and self-stratified by skin shade, money and education. Their problems sound suspiciously common to all except that color-consciousness intensifies them. There are the Dunfords, a middle class family suffering typical status tensions who are given more than one story here (and a novel would be an excellent place for them). There are the much poorer Bedlows, who also turn up in more than one story, and who struggle to a survival they accept without always understanding rewarding. - Kirkus Reviews

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William Melvin Kelley, Dis/Integration

Dunford also is the focus of Dis/Integration, a novel Kelley recently completed. He’s still seeking a publisher. In that novel, Dunford lives almost entirely among Euros (Kelley’s preferred term for Caucasians or whites) and only occasionally sees his family. Kelley likens Dunford’s situation to Leopold Bloom’s in Joyce’s Ulysses.
“He’s in society, but he’s not really a part of that society,” Kelley said. “I see African-American kids now who have grown up in the suburbs with Euros, and they’re not African-American any more — culturally, anyway. They don’t know any more about the ghetto than anybody else.”
Kelley doesn’t know when or if Dis/Integration will be published. He can’t pinpoint exactly why he hasn’t been able to get a book published in the past 42 years. “My wife thinks I was blacklisted because I was an early opponent of the Vietnam War,” he said. “I’m not sure about that.” He believes he might have earned a reputation in the publishing world of being hard to work with because he staunchly resisted changes his publisher, Doubleday, wanted to make in Dunfords Travels Everywheres. His absence from the United States for nine years and the emergence of other talented African-American writers in the 1970s such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker may have worked against him, he said.
But it’s all speculation. No one knows for certain why a writer of his talent and stature hasn’t been able get a book published in 42 years. So the mystery lives on. And so, happily, do William Melvin Kelley and his literary legacy. - Steve Kemme
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William Melvin Kelley: Interview

William Melvin Kelley's novels to date have dealt with inter-racial conflict, but the emphasis has been on the examination of characters, black and white, and the myths with which they delude themselves. His novels pose no "solutions" to the conflict but the solution of self-understanding, and his depiction of the relationships—loving and competitive—between men and women and blacks and whites combines compassion, objectivity, and humor.
His first novel, A Different Drummer, set realistically rendered characters in a fantasy plot. From multiple points of view he displayed the reactions of the whites of a fictional Southern state to the spontaneous grass-roots emigration of the state's blacks. A minor incident in A Different Drummer concerns Wallace Bedlow, who is waiting for a bus to take him to New York City, where he plans to live with his brother, Carlyle. Bedlow appears only that one time, but he surfaces again in "Cry for Me," probably the best short story in Dancers on the Shore, in which he becomes a famous folk singer. In that story the themes of one's public image versus the true self and commercialism versus art are explored.
These themes are developed further in Kelley's second novel, A Drop of Patience. The protagonist is a blind, black jazz musician, whose intuitive experimentation is contrasted to the intellectualization of critics, and whose love of music comes into conflict with the commercialization of music. More important than these themes, however, is the development of the character himself, who passes through various rites of passage as he learns to deal with sex, love, racism, and fame.
Carlyle Bedlow, who appeared in several of the stories in Dancers on the Shore, reappears in Dem, Kelley's third novel. "Lemme tellya how dem folks live," the novel begins. It goes on to show dem white folks living out their myths of white superiority, masculine prerogative, and soap-opera escapism. They are such victims of the pernicious myths of their culture that they are no longer even a threat to black people.
Racial conflict nearly disappears amidst the experimentation and fantasy of Dunfords Travels Everywheres, Kelley's own clever and original permutation of Finnegans Wake. A triptych in plot, style, and character, Dunfords Travels Everywheres is an ambitious short novel; it succeeds in being clever, but as an exploration into character it's less satisfying than his earlier novels.
Kelley has shown himself a skillful craftsman in a variety of styles and approaches. In his stories and in his first three novels his exploration of character develops as the character seeks—or refuses to seek—a unity between the person he feels he is and the personality he or society thinks he should be. This is true also in one of the three interwoven stories of Dunfords Travels Everywheres. In the other two stories a playful fantasy dominates. If Kelley's fiction has a direction, it's one that moves from seriousness and psychological probing to fantasy, playfulness, and comedy. —William Borden
William Melvin Kelley secondary crop

William Melvin Kelley, the experimental novelist and filmmaker—who mastered and reinvented a kind of midcentury literary style crafted from a colorful array of language and perspectives—died in Manhattan on February 1, 2017, at the age of 79. For the past three decades, Kelley taught fiction at Sarah Lawrence College, where I enrolled in his seminar. We struck up a long dialogue about Jewish and African American literature and culture.
From his teaching and the dialogues that followed off and on for years afterwards, Willy inspired in me a self-reliance and will to originality, which seems to always pull me back to his surreal and carnivalesque view of American culture. Never predictable, Willy, when I asked him which novel might give my work a sharper, more distinct view of Jewish American culture, responded: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That novel—in its Yiddish translation—became my doctoral dissertation’s keystone. Kelley’s work was always spiritual: he studied the Jewish tradition—as closely as he could without the benefit of an official conversion—calling himself a Child of Israel and a believer in the “True God.” He often said that as a poor reader, there were only two books in his life that he had read end-to-end: James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the Hebrew Bible.
Willy, or “Duke” as he was known in his Harlem neighborhood, was born in Staten Island on November 1, 1937. His father, William Melvin Kelley Sr., was an editor at the African American newspaper the Amsterdam News, who tried unsuccessfully to start his own newspaper and ultimately became a civil servant. His mother, the former Narcissa Agatha Garcia, was a homemaker and devout Catholic.
Kelley was intimately involved in discovering a new African American aesthetic, one catalyzed by the history-shifting politics of the Civil Rights and Black Power era. In 1962, he published his first novel, the masterpiece A Different Drummer. The novel takes place in a mythical southern state that mysteriously loses its large black population in 48 hours. The literary critic Trudier Harris called the novel “a battleground of sorts,” which rebelled against expectations by depicting African American characters with no narrative voice of their own. Instead, the narrators are taken from among numerous white characters, who each describe and analyze the actions of black characters for the reading audience.
Kelley was a late subject of the Harlem Renaissance photographer Carl Van Vechten and a young protégé of Langston Hughes, who in 1965 invited him to tour Europe under the auspices of the State Department. Kelley’s imagination honored the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance by depicting the absurd inequalities that followed in its wake. He published prolifically throughout the 1960s, including a collection of short stories, Dancers on the Shore (1964), and the novels A Drop of Patience (1965), dem (1967), and Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970). In that final novel, Kelley devised a Joycean creole: “Dust, we may away ouSelfs from the langleash language for a Perusol o’ so some Source matourial gleanered from dPages o’ Dialy Citysun”
“I would say there were two languages that were created by African Americans,” he explained in one of his seminars. “One that is being created so that African people could communicate with European people and another language for African people to communicate with other African people. I imagine that at that point, English was the common language that we were using. So, OK, we would use English words, but we use them in an African way. That process takes a long time,” he thought, “Yiddish is a language that can be considered a Creole language. It was a combination of Hebrew and German, and it was spoken by Jews in Europe. It’s a question that African Americans will have to answer. Do we let it die out and learn standard English, or do we keep them both and develop a language and literature in both?”
Willy’s assignments at once confounded and invigorated the Sarah Lawrence campus’s avant-garde sensibilities. One recurring exercise, for example, was for seminar participants to write a romance novel collectively. Each of the 15 students would be responsible for writing one chapter. At the culmination of the semester, the students came together for a charged reading that voiced a cohesive work with divergent points of view, styles, and levels of diction. Another involved writing five pages without the verb “to be”—a technique that Willy culled from the biblical narrators.
In 2014, the Oxford English Dictionary credited Kelley with coining the political term “woke,” in a 1962 New York Times article titled “If You’re Woke You Dig It; No mickey mouse can be expected to follow today’s Negro idiom without a hip assist. If You’re Woke You Dig It.” The hashtag #staywoke later became a catchphrase of the new Black Lives Matter movement, after first passing serendipitously through Erykah Badu.
Kelley wrote intricate novels that identified with the rejection of dominant social orders, while also penning incisive essays drawn sharply from his experience in the centers of power. In “The Ivy League Negro,” which appeared in Esquire Magazine in 1963, he remarked on African American men like himself enrolled at elite universities:
In my class at Harvard, out of a thousand boys, there were ten Negroes. By the end of the first three weeks of the term, I had met them all. A Negro in a new situation will look, either consciously or unconsciously, for other Negroes. He will not feel really at home until he knows how many there are, their names, and where they came from. I always compare it to two spies in enemy territory dropping notes scribbled on matchbook covers as they pass one another on the street.
In his novel dem, an absurdist parable, a white woman gives birth to twins—one of whom, mysteriously, is mixed-race—only to discover that the mysterious baby is the result of super fecundation: the “fertilization of two ova by two separate sperm during two separate copulations.” After the death of the white baby, her grieving husband Mitchell searches for the father of the brown baby and finds Calvin Coolidge Johnson in Harlem, who denies any responsibility for the child. A man who long held a “grudge” against whites, Coolidge reminds Mitchell of the countless slave owners who fathered children and denied their paternity, forcing black men into a false paternal role. Instead, Coolidge insists that Mitchell’s time had come. When Mitchell asks, “Why me?” Coolidge replies, “Why [my] great-granddaddy?”
Kelley was an expert in the arts and theories of mixed metaphor. Of his childhood he wrote:
I was not raised in a ghetto, but in the North Bronx, the only Negro boy on a predominantly Italian-American block. Knowing this you must not immediately assume that I was unhappy, you must not assume I was always fighting on my way to school; this was not at all the case. On the contrary, being the only Negro gave me a wonderful advantage; I was always a very important part of the games my white friends and I played. When we played the Lone Ranger, I was always Tonto; when we fought the Japs, I was always the Friendly Native. This is because I was not so much “colored” as brown, and too good a friend to be one of the outlaws or the Japanese.
Kelley attended the Fieldston School and in 1957 entered Harvard College planning to be a civil rights lawyer. Instead, he was drawn to the seminars of John Hawkes and Archibald Macleish, and won the Dana Read Prize in 1960 for the best piece of writing in any Harvard undergraduate publication. Shortly thereafter he took a leave of absence to focus on his writing and left campus six months short of earning a degree. In 1965, in the moments after hearing of Malcolm X’s murder, he detailed his decision to go into exile: “I wouldn’t assign myself the task of announcing that our little rebellion had failed, that racism had won again for a while. Not with a young wife and a toddler depending on me and all this killing going on. By the time I reached the Bronx, I had decided to depart the Plantation, perhaps permanently.” Kelly’s time abroad brought him and his family to Rome, Ibiza, Paris, and Jamaica, where he taught at the University of the West Indies. In Europe, he joined other African American artists, writers and intellectuals in self-imposed exile.
Besides his uncollected short stories, which have appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, the New Yorker, the Negro Digest, Quilt, and many anthologies, Kelley has a 1964 short story collection, Dancers on the Shore, which won the Transatlantic Review award. In 1988, he wrote, produced, and starred in the rare experimental film “Excavating Harlem.” From 1989 until 1992, he kept a video diary, as a way to capture the beauty of his family and neighborhood that he felt could not be described in words. The resulting video, some of it damaged by years of storage, was collected and edited over the course of two years into another short called The Beauty That I Saw. The film debuted in the 2015 Harlem International Film Festival, where it won a Harlem Spotlight Award. In 2008, he was awarded Anisfield Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Willy Kelley was known for his enduring devotion to his family and his beloved Harlem. His acerbic and artful allegiance to the masses came through in a 1977 New York Times dispatch from Kingston, Jamaica, where he wrote of the political similarities between the island and his native land:
The poor and the righteous can do anything they will, as they periodically and devastatingly show. But oftentimes (weary after years on a low-protein diet), they surrender the Authority to Do to some fatty ego with a megaphone and one ancient laugh in his script. Country people will stand quietly for hours listening to a fool. They grow the food the fool gets fat on, but after all the fool comes from the city. - Eli Rosenblatt

William Melvin Kelley, who brought a fresh, experimental voice to black fiction in novels and stories that used recurring characters to explore race relations and racial identity in the United States, died on Feb. 1 in Manhattan. He was 79.
The cause was complications of kidney failure, his daughter Jessica Kelley said.
Mr. Kelley blended fantasy and fact to construct an alternative world whose sweep and complexity drew comparisons to James Joyce and William Faulkner. Minor characters in one story or novel might appear later as larger figures, their stories elaborated in greater detail — and, in his later fiction, in language that recalled the linguistic experimentation of Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.”
Mr. Kelley’s fabulist bent was apparent in his first novel, “A Different Drummer,” published in 1962. Set in a mythical Southern state, it traced the fortunes of a black farmer, Tucker Caliban, who salts his land, shoots his horse and cow, burns down his house and heads north with his pregnant wife and their infant child, prompting an exodus of every black resident in the state. - William Grimes

Oleg Woolf - Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz, a vivid, surreal evocation of a liminal world. The characters follow the trajectories of elementary particles, disappearing in one dimension only to reappear in another.”

Oleg Woolf, Bessarabian Stamps: Stories , Trans. by Boris Dralyuk, Phoneme Media, 2015. Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocod...