Monday, March 30, 2015

On Literary Criticism

This is an accompaniment to my sign-off piece on Indie Writers Monthly today.  This is a story I wrote 11 years ago about an "honest" online book reviewer who gets a chance to meet one of the people whose book he's trashed.  His "integrity" winds up being betrayed by his secondary brain.  It's called "Carnal Knowledge" and you can find it as part of The Carnival Papers, my collection of literary short stories, on sale in paperback and ebook format on Amazon or FREE to read online on Wattpad.

Code of Heaven by Susan Witherbee is without a doubt the worst book I have ever read.  The story—if this jumbled mess can be considered a story—is told through a series of random flashbacks that confounded me as the reader and kept me from ever getting into the book.  Each flashback provides little more than a sketch of an event to confirm its existence rather than enlighten the reader on its significance; I would have preferred four or five detailed sequences instead of the half-baked scattershot approach the author uses.

The characters are as flat and dull as the paper the novel is printed on.  Witherbee is more concerned with describing what the characters are wearing or what music they listen to than with what they think and feel.  Joshua, the “hero” of the story, is so morally bankrupt that I anxiously awaited for his inevitable, not tragic, death.  Sarah, Joshua’s love interest, comes off as a whiny, pampered princess whose sole function is to pine after Joshua and nurse him on occasion.  As for the secondary characters, they were little more than sounding boards, extras, and cheerleaders; none of them had any personality to speak of.

The author’s prose is a mockery to anyone who appreciates real literature; I’m amazed an editor let this horrid trash out the door.  Of course it helps that her father is CEO for the world’s largest chemical company—my very own Herbert Chemical.  I’m sure a few briefcases full of cash helped to grease the wheels of the printing presses; what else can explain how such a travesty managed to infiltrate the bookshelves?

Even as I write this, Witherbee is already shooting up the bestseller list and looking for a buyer for the movie rights.  No doubt she’ll ask Daddy to get her the starring role.  I implore anyone reading this review not to encourage a spoiled brat playing at being an author; do not aid and abet the further decline of American literature.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Dante Randall hit the last key with a flourish and leaned back in his rickety wooden office chair.  How fitting that the review to put him over the top was directed at his most hated enemy.  If only he could get her to read it and see the look on her face, the humiliation would be priceless to watch.  In the semi-darkness of his basement lair, Dante imagined Susan Witherbee bursting into a fit of tears as she read his review. 
While he loaded the review to the BookBurners Web site, Dante considered where to file his copy of Code of Heaven.  The three rotting bookcases on the wall to his left, adjacent to the hot water heater, comprised his ‘Keepers’—the books he deemed worthy to retain.  Next to the bookshelves, a pair of dilapidated cardboard boxes, still smelling of the laundry detergent they had once contained, served as the final resting place for those books he would eventually sell to Steve’s Discount Book Shop to fund his future purchases.  Dante wasted little time in tossing Witherbee’s book in one of the cardboard boxes.  He turned back to his ancient computer and logged in to the BookBurners home page.
As soon as he copied the text of his review into the form and hit the Submit button, he became the site’s top reviewer.  In five years Dante—under the pseudonym Book Justice—had reviewed five hundred books, just one more than his long-time nemesis Sir Readsalot.  Like Susan Witherbee, Dante imagined the enigmatic Readsalot would burst into tears when he realized he had lost his title at last.
His mother spoiled his moment of triumph by calling down the stairs, “Dante, take out the trash!”
“In a couple minutes, Ma,” he shouted back.  He scrolled through the BookBurners site to read the other reviews of Code of Heaven, most by amateur hacks who couldn’t string together a single sentence.  No one—the mighty Sir Readsalot included—rivaled Dante’s combination of analytical skill, writing knowledge, and sharp wit.  The other reviewers all hailed Code of Heaven as “brilliant”, “bold”, and “amazing” while crowning Susan Witherbee as, “a powerful new voice in American literature” and “the reigning queen of the literary world”. 
The adulation came as no surprise to Dante.  The masses cared only for entertainment, for a book to keep their feeble minds occupied during a long flight or a day at the beach.  They were a mob easily amused by a shiny new toy, until they grew tired of it and looked for something else to entertain them.  Susan Witherbee was the woman of the moment, but the public’s love for her would fade quickly, as Dante’s had.
He remembered the day he had fallen under Witherbee’s spell, his first day at Freepoint Central High School.  Back then he was a three-hundred-pound geek with long, greasy hair concealing his zit-ravaged face; his wardrobe consisted solely of heavy metal T-shirts that showed off his gut if he raised his arms and elastic waistband pants with crotches that would wear out after two months of use.  In junior high, he had been a nerd even amongst the nerds—no one wanted to commit social suicide by befriending him.  High school gave him a new lease on life, a second chance to make friends.
Everyone at Freepoint Central wanted to be Susan Witherbee’s friend.  She was a senior, homecoming queen, head cheerleader, and student council president.  She always traveled with a phalanx of cronies and admirers surrounding her.  Every male—including the teachers—saw her in his dreams, hovering naked in his mind’s eye like Botticelli’s Venus. 
The moment Dante had seen her, he underwent his first sexual experience.  He had been waddling down the hallway to his first class when she came gliding towards him, surrounded by her loyal court of fellow cheerleaders.  The other students parted before her like the Red Sea, and though he was too new to know who she was, he understood the reaction of his peers made her someone important.  As she approached, Dante froze in his tracks and gaped at her breathtaking beauty.  Her golden hair trailed behind her like a cloud, her breasts bulged against her blue-and-white cheerleader sweater, and her skirt gave him a full view of her long, athletic legs.  When she turned her emerald eyes on him, the blood drained from his face and a strange, unfamiliar surge of emotion flooded through him.
Her eyes went wide when she saw him and she put a pale, delicate hand to her mouth.  From her full, red lips came a sound like the twitter of a songbird—a laugh.  The other girls in her entourage joined in the laughter and Dante wondered what they found so funny.  Then he looked down and saw the bulge in his pants peeking out over the rim of his gut.
In the moment he had first laid eyes on her, Dante had loved Susan Witherbee as the public now did.  It was only in the sanctuary of a bathroom stall after dropping his books and running away with the sound of her laughter ringing in his ears that he understood what Susan Witherbee was.  She was a Siren calling to him with her beauty, only to send his heart crashing onto the rocks.  In an instant, she had driven him mad with desire and destroyed his life at Freepoint Central before it had begun.
That was the day Dante Randall became known around the school as “Boner” for his accidental sexual transgression.  He lumbered down the halls with snickers, catcalls, and cries of “Keep it in your pants!” trailing in his wake.  Susan Witherbee’s delicate laugh had made Dante an untouchable and turned his four years at Freepoint Central into a nightmare.  She had never once apologized to him or encouraged others to go easy on him.  With her popularity and prestige, she could have ended all the abuse by showing some compassion towards him, but after he so unceremoniously ran away that first day, he had never seen or heard from her again.
In the bathroom stall, Dante had learned what the public soon would—underneath the beauty and behind the money was a selfish, spoiled brat who cared for no one but herself.  She had enjoyed his humiliation, relished his embarrassment, and savored his abuse.  Once the masses began to know her like he did, then they would turn against her.  Then he would have his revenge.
“Dante, take out the trash!  It’s stinking up the house,” his mother shouted down the stairs.  He shook his head and snagged his parka from the nail where it hung before stomping up the steps into the kitchen.  He muttered a stream of obscenities as he hefted the trash bag from the can and tied it up.  If she hated the smell so much, why didn’t she just take the garbage out instead of screaming at him?
He committed a minor act of defiance by taking the stinking bag through the living room, where his bovine mother sprawled on the tattered sofa and watched a soap opera.  “About time,” she growled at his appearance and blew a cloud of smoke in his direction; Dante exaggerated a hacking cough before he opened the door.
The bitter January air struck him like a thousand tiny needles poking his flesh; in his anger and annoyance at his mother, Dante had forgotten to don the hat and gloves necessary for the brutal arctic trek to the curb.  He hurried as fast as he dared on the icy driveway, transferring the garbage bag from one hand to the other so he could keep his free hand in the pocket of his parka, a gesture that provided minimal protection against the cold.  In such conditions, he found himself longing for the insulation his fat had once provided.  By the time he dumped the bag on the curb, his nose had gone numb and his teeth were clicking out their own Morse code.  As he skidded back along the ice of the driveway, he saw a hint of blue plastic peeking from the snowdrift that in warmer months served as his mother’s unsuccessful flowerbed. 
Why couldn’t the paperboy ever land the newspaper within a five-foot radius of the front door? Dante wondered and tiptoed his way through the snow with both hands firmly stuffed into his pockets.  He reached out to pull the bag free from its wintry cage and tucked it under his arm before running to the front door with his head down and shoulders lowered against the wind like a fullback.  Then at last he reached the door and threw himself inside, where the warmth from the furnace washed over his shivering body.
He stood in the doorway for a long time, the feeling returning to his extremities gradually, before he remembered the newspaper under his arm.  Dante pulled the morning edition of The Freepoint Daily News from its wrapper and shook out the cold pages.  His mother subscribed to the newspaper solely for the obituaries, wedding announcements, and crime stories so she would have plenty of ammunition when gossiping with her friends on the phone later.  Dante rarely took interest in the local newspaper—he planned to subscribe to The New York Times when he got the money—but today as he glanced at the front page, the headline chilled him more than the weather outside.  ‘Local Author Tops Bestseller List,’ the headline boasted and without reading further, Dante knew to whom it referred.
The article was a one-column story documenting Susan Witherbee’s rise to the top of the bestseller list—it told him little he didn’t already know—but more surprising was the teaser for an exclusive interview with the author in the Arts section.  Dante pawed through the newspaper and threw the other sections at his mother’s feet before running downstairs with the Arts section of the newspaper.  Under the dim light of a single bare bulb, Dante’s anger boiled.
When asked why she had decided to write a book, Witherbee replied, “I wanted to write something that would really affect people’s lives.”  Code of Heaven had only affected Dante’s life by stoking the coals of his anger for what she had done to him and to the literary world in general.  He laughed when she answered a question about her literary influences with, “I’ve always read a lot of books.  When I was a kid, I read every Nancy Drew book.”  He doubted she’d advanced much past Nancy Drew mysteries.  He snorted as he read her response to why her book had become a bestseller.  “I don’t really know.  You’ll have to ask the fans.”
The last comment provided the interviewer with the perfect segue into mentioning that Witherbee would be signing copies of her bestseller at the Barnes and Noble in the Freepoint Mall today from two to four o’clock.  Dante checked his watch; the signing would start in two hours.  He leaned back and glanced at his computer screen.  He remembered his earlier vision of Susan Witherbee bursting into tears as she read his review of her work; now he had the opportunity to see her reaction in person.  In front of the teeming mass of her fans, he could expose her as the literary fraud he knew her to be and hasten the public’s disenchantment.  “I’ll do it,” he announced and shot to his feet.
Dante scampered upstairs and raced down the hall to his bedroom.  From the depths of his closet, he pulled out the dark blue suit reserved for weddings and funerals in addition to a starched white shirt and black tie.  After delivering his justice to Witherbee, he would have to change before his shift at Little Caesars, but he wanted to look as prosperous and respectable as possible when he tore her apart.
While he took a brief shower, Dante hummed “Ride of the Valkyries” at the top of his lungs in anticipation of the apocalypse awaiting Susan Witherbee.  She would rue the day she had laughed at him in the hallway of Freepoint Central; he would inflict the same humiliation on her that he had endured that day.  This time she would be the one running to the bathroom in tears to find consolation among the cold, vacant stalls.
After he hopped out of the shower, he stood in front of the mirror; Susan Witherbee would not recognize him anymore.  Puberty and more restrictive eating habits had shrunk his waistline to where only the slightest bulge remained.  He kept his hair at military length and washed it often enough to keep it from becoming greasy.  His skin had cleared, although it was a sickly shade of white from too many afternoons spent reading in the basement.  He was a whole new person—strong, confident, and ready to destroy his hated enemy.
He resumed humming as he strode down the hall with a swagger in his step.  “Where are you going?” his mother demanded without bothering to look away from the television screen.  “You got a date or something?”
“Yeah, I got a date,” Dante mumbled.  A date with destiny, he thought.  The cold wind slammed into him again as he opened the door and stepped outside.  He put his head down and skittered to his ice-encrusted silver Nova.  The engine sputtered to life and the defroster wheezed before spewing a thin stream of warm air.  Dante didn’t have time to wait for the car to warm up; he scraped away enough frost from the windshield to see and pulled out of the driveway.
Blanketed in ice and snow, the crumbling manufactured homes of Ridgewood Manors looked like the ruins of some post-apocalyptic wasteland.  The bleakness of the scene usually filled Dante with despair and a longing to escape to a warmer, more inviting climate, but today nothing could faze his high spirits.  He had waited a decade for the chance to pay back Susan Witherbee for what she had done to him, for how she had ruined his life.  Now, on this frosty winter day, Fortune had laid the opportunity right into his lap.
Dante’s humming reached a fevered pitch as he passed under the mammoth cement struts of I-775 and saw the Freepoint Mall to his right.  The mall called to him like a glittering white beacon awaiting his visit to dispense the justice he had long craved.  He pulled into the parking lot and skated down the rows of cars with his head held high in defiance to the wind; a power he had never known before coursed through his veins to fill him with an inner strength.  By the time he reached the heavy wooden doors of the Barnes and Noble, he had labeled the mysterious emotion welling up inside of him—hatred. 
When he yanked the doors opened, he found himself thrust into a tide of humanity running the length of the store.  The great multitude—some clutching copies of Code of Heaven—chatted and fidgeted as they waited in line.  A hefty young mother stood in front of Dante and obstructed his view of everything save for the wide expanse of her back and bulbous rear end.  The woman’s two daughters, who had the same short brown hair and chubby frame of their mother, yanked on the sleeve of her winter coat.  “Mommy, we want to look at toys,” one of the girls whined.
“You promised,” her sister added.
“We’ll go to the toy store after I’m done here.  Now stop bothering me,” the woman snapped.  The little girls jumped back as though she had slapped them and their faced turned red as tears formed in their eyes.  Dante took a step backward—he didn’t want anyone to mistake him for the father of the poor children—and held his tongue.  He wanted to assure the horrible woman that Susan Witherbee’s signature was no great prize, but he couldn’t risk making a scene and getting thrown out of the store before he delivered his message.  As if she sensed Dante’s disgust, the woman patted her girls on the head and said sweetly, “Why don’t you two go look at all the pretty picture books?”  Her daughters nodded and staggered away with their heads down like scolded puppies.
Dante shook his head and immersed himself in his hatred of Susan Witherbee.  He recited his review over and over again in his mind until he could say it verbatim, as he would when he got to the head of the line.  He paid little attention as the flood of Witherbee’s fans ground its way through the aisles of the bookstore, and before he knew it, he had neared his goal.  A heavy wooden table swathed in a blue tablecloth that shamelessly matched the cover of Code of Heaven was stacked with copies of the book.  Blocked by the big woman ahead of him and the other fans, Dante could only make out an elderly gentleman on the right, who Dante decided was either Witherbee’s agent or father.
Then he heard her voice for the first time.  It had the same sweet, melodic pitch as the laugh that had tormented him for a decade.  “Thank you very much,” she said.  “I’m glad you loved the book.”
He was tempted to peek around the big mother in front of him, but he didn’t want to call attention to himself; this was supposed to be an ambush after all.  The woman ahead of Dante stepped forward and said, “I really liked the book, Ms. Witherbee.  It was so beautiful.”
“Thank you, that means a lot,” Witherbee replied.  Dante detected the undercurrent of boredom in her voice; no doubt she had heard the same praise a thousand times before.  The woman took her signed copy of the book and pulled away to give Dante a good look at his mortal enemy for the first time.
He froze in his tracks and traveled back in time to the hallway of Freepoint Central.  He was again the rotund nerd gawking at her unparalleled beauty.  She looked almost the same as he remembered, except that her hair was cut shorter and she’d gained just enough weight to give her a more curvaceous, womanly figure.  Her still-firm breasts pressed against the fabric of her tight pink blouse—she was not wearing a bra—and a pale, ringless hand went to her lips.  The blood drained from Dante’s face and a now-familiar surge of emotion ran through him.
She laughed the same songbird twitter as she had ten years ago.
Dante looked down and saw the bulge against the blue fabric of his pants.  All the words he had rehearsed, all the hatred he had felt, drained away into oblivion.  Time stopped around him and he heard only the familiar sound of her laughter ringing in his ears.  He met her eyes for a moment and saw nothing but scorn and amusement in them.
Dante turned and bolted away as he had ten years earlier.
He ran through the aisles of the Barnes and Noble, frantically seeking to find somewhere to hide.  As he flew through the store, he heard the old snickers, catcalls, and a cry of “Hey buddy, keep it in your pants!”  When he neared the entrance to the children’s section of the store, he had to stop to avoid running down the woman who had been standing in front of him in line and her two daughters.
“Mommy, what’s wrong with that man?” one of the girls asked.
The woman’s eyes swelled and she turned her children away.  “It’s nothing,” she replied and frantically shoved them towards the checkout.  Dante looked down at his pants and saw the stubborn bulge was still there.  Before anyone else took notice of him, he sprinted ahead and mercifully found the bathroom, where he locked himself in an immaculate hunter green stall.
Nothing had changed.  He had changed his outward appearance so that he longer looked like the fat geek she had laughed at in the hallway of Freepoint Central, but inside he was still the same.  All this time his heart and his mind had lied to him, but his most primitive piece of anatomy could not be so easily fooled.  It had known all along that the love he felt for Susan Witherbee had never evaporated.  While his mind conjured clever reviews and scenarios of vengeance, his penis had followed the primal instinct programmed into it through millions of years of evolution.
There are no reader comments today.  If you liked this story, why not go buy the whole collection using the links above?
See you Wednesday for the A to Z Challenge!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...