The Essential Carl Mahogany by Zach Boddicker

 

3.75 Stars (3.75 / 5)

The self-effacing, chaotic, past-his-prime, doubtful, ambivalent, awkward, sometimes arrogant, but usually humorous main character in Zach Boddicker’s novel The Essential Carl Mahogany, is at the proverbial crossroads. What direction should he go in his life? And besides the van named Percy who should Carl bring with him? Carl’s mission is to figure out how to get his shit together and to find his soul which he lost working in the country music industry, except Carl perpetually gets sidetracked by…pick something. Anything. This is why Carl isn’t all that famous of a musician. Sometimes life just happens.

 

There is no dire conflict within the story. No swashbuckling. No hero action. All of the conflict is the soul-sucking daily kind, but Boddicker tells his tale with so much broken self-awareness that you are drawn in by the prose. The story is an oddball, misfit kind of thing that is difficult to categorize as other than a fictional memoir, but the moodiness of the setting and the narrative tickles your ear like a beloved old country song you forgot you knew.

The Discharge by Gary Reilly

4 Stars (4 / 5)

In The Discharge, Private Palmer is home from Vietnam. Everything that served him previously, his training, his skills, no longer applies, and Palmer flounders to make sense of “home” and what that means. The evolution from military personnel to private citizen is laborious, arduous, and problematic. At a loss with what to do with himself, Palmer wanders the streets of Denver, ambles around San Francisco, follows that inevitable movie dream in Los Angeles, but has that bleak moment where he questions all. Palmer returns to Denver, the place that never left his subconscious, to where he finally finds some sense of belonging.

 

The Discharge has the moody quality of a memoir, with emotional depth and moment by moment details, as if you are eavesdropping on Palmer as he shares his story over a beer at a bar with an acquaintance he hardly knows. Maybe Palmer drank too much and shared more intimate moments than intended, only Palmer wasn’t aware of it. The telling is frank and uninhibited and careens between both past and present remembrances sloshing amid tangible vignettes of memory, sensory perception, and moody interruption. Palmer’s journey corkskrews him on the quest of a man trying to find himself again after the disruption of the war and death and distance and time. Ultimately, when Palmer returns from battle he is trying to be the same person he was before Vietnam. But that is just not possible because the ends of a spiral never touch.

Still Black Remains by Kevin Michaels

3 Stars (3 / 5)

“To turn or change shape under torsion”.  That’s one of the ways Merriam-Webster defines ‘twist’.  It’s also an apt name for the main protagonist in Kevin Michael’s latest book.  Still Black Remains is the story of Skulls gang member, Twist, and the internal contortions and distortions he undergoes as his beliefs, desires, and humanity come under increasing pressure and strain from real-world people and events.  Those events ultimately lead to Twist having to make some life-changing decisions for himself and those around him.  Whether he adheres to his own moral compass or forgoes his humanity will be up to the reader to decide.

Much of Still Black Remains is a buildup to the climax at the end of the book.  Portions of the dialogue come across as formal, and therefore lack a sense of urban authenticity.  Conversely, Michaels does a good job with setting a scene and using the kind of detail that paints a clear picture of Twist’s environment.  It is in its third act that Still Black Remains comes alive.  The action is well done, to the point but visceral and complete.  It chases away some of the mental cobwebs and muted connection to the characters that comes from Michaels’ heavy-handed efforts in earlier chapters to convey how pointless and isolating Twist’s life feels.

The author spends a lot of time communicating the despair, powerlessness, and detachment that Twist and his companions experience.  Michaels does that so effectively that the reader begins to wonder why he should care about their lives if they don’t even care about their own.  ‘Meaning’ is a significant underlying theme in Still Black Remains.  Does anything have meaning other than the meaning we give it?  If so, what happens when we stop ascribing meaning to a thing?  Does it become worthless?  Then what?  It’s ultimately up to each individual to decide that.  Kevin Michaels wisely doesn’t pretend to know the answers.  He’s just asking the questions.