Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Len Gasparini: Heading Home

Linda Rogers

A Demon in My View
Len Gasparini
Guernica Editions, 2003

The Undertaker’s Wife
Len Gasparini
Guernica Editions, 2007

When Does a Kiss Become a Bite?
Len Gasparini
Ekstasis Editions, 2009

It is always dangerous asking a woman to review the writing of a boy’s boy. However, the Body Worlds exhibition, which shows us that skin is only the receptacle of our twenty-one grams and its complex infrastructure, reminds the female critic that there is a lot going on beneath the testosterone driven top layer of flesh that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself on the first peel.
A first reading of Len Gasparini, longer ago than he probably wants to remember, bespoke of a truck driver plowing through fresh fields of inadequately rooted Italian girls. “Lock up your daughters” this critic wrote about poetry that was often more pen than ink. But was that fair? The writer didn’t think so.

Now Gasparini, the idiosyncratic poet obsessed with undressing plaster Madonnas and their pulchritudinous sorelle, is a mature voyageur, his road broadened to the four narrative lanes on North American highways. Those roads, the ones taken and not taken, wear the patina of men who change their minds.

Rubber bears witness to brave-hearts who stop and start and reverse direction. You can smell it on the pages of Gasparini’s books. It is the scent of nostalgia and regret. And he isn’t spraying Manguard or whatever passes for reality fumigant on any of it. In this season of “clever” writing, the big schism between head and heart, the top and bottom notes of plainspeak in Gasparini’s mostly first person narratives are as welcome as frangipani riding the Japanese Current from the South Pacific. His prose smells like real earth in the hothouse of artifice.

In the story “Wild Pitch,” from the collection A Demon in My View, life seen through his rear view mirror, Gasparini compares baseball and poetry unpacking the arguable veracity of Cy Young’s statement, “Pitchers like poets are born and not made.” That may be true but there is also grace in the effort to endure, despite and even because of the failure to reach perfection. If perfection were the only desideratum, then the human race and writer Len Gasparini would both be redundant.

The thing is, in stories where the muse (a toss up: Edgar Alan Poe or Mary Magdalen) and the pitching arm fail and the omniscient observer swoops in for sex as with the sexually ambivalent husband and his unsatisfied wife “Frank and Millie” in The Undertaker’s Wife, a more recent but still stubbornly fami(g)liar collection, the voyageur is fearless. His pen goes everywhere. It does not discriminate. It does not stop to check for stutters and dangling modifiers. It does not censor itself in tidy little pirouettes around dog mess on the carpet. That is not the stuff of bravery. As any good dancer knows, when you lead with your heart, the right foot will follow.

They are always on the move, his jiving “I’s, mostly in vintage cars driven by guy’s guys with cigarette packages folded in the sleeves of their T shirts. Once in a while, they rev the engines in mating displays. Sometimes they take a wrong turn. Always, the chicks notice. We notice. These multiple “I’s are people worthy of our attention because they live from the ground up, answering yes to the checklist of things needed for the drive through life. Feet, yes! Peckers, yes! Tickers, sure! Noggins, sometimes!

It doesn’t matter whether or not Gasparini’s voyageur is autobiographical. He is always honest and that is refreshing in a world of disingenuous metro-wankers.

In When Does A Kiss become A Bite, his recent short story collection from Ekstasis Editions, which has made a specialty of noir auteurs, tender stalkers of the psychic night like Gasparini, Jim Christie and John Moore, he continues the picaresque tradition, a rolling stone gathering grainy photos. Those frames infused with masculine language long on torque carry the stories from beginnings to uncertain endings. For a lapsed Catholic, that uncertainty looms.

There is redemption in kindness, the aspect of gentleness that helps navigate even the most treacherous corners. In the story “Poetic Justice” Fletcher (rhymes with…) the academic falls for a mother and daughter who represent the bookends of innocence and experience. For the character defying his mortality in carnal sin and losing himself in a maze of temptation the mother is past her stale date and the daughter his logical option. Biologically speaking, that is a no brainer. Morally, it spells ruin for all of them. The academic loses his job and is murdered in an act of random justice and the daughter ends up on the street. “It is only the emotionally impaired who really experience love, he thought: which is why it is so intimately linked with tragedy.”

In the story “Graveyard Shift,” which concludes the latest collection, Gasparini, who sometimes navigates a sentence like a husband forced to take dance lessons, delivers a visceral punch in a turn of phrase no woman could have concocted, “When George Bozin’s wife left him, he was like a man who had died standing up.” Even horses wouldn’t have thought of that wonderful image, and they know stand-up. This level of self-awareness is Gasparini’s high note.

When does a kiss become a bite? There are three answers to the question: always, sometimes and never. It all depends on point of view. The view through the rear view mirror is almost always sweeter. Gasparini’s fictional world, in spite of his grainy film noir realism, is nostalgic. Three books written over a decade move forward and the driver sits firmly at the wheel. He is a traveler (albeit ever closer to the end of the road) with the guts to keep on driving. The final story ends in a noose, with implied redemption. The narrator will be saved for another ride in the desert of temptation.

The cohabitation of shadow and light in this and other stories is a catholic preoccupation. No matter how far the narrator drives, the past is still written in the gestalt of his journey. He may be driving toward Poe and Southern Gothic, but there is a Bible in his glove compartment.
In “The Space Between a Bed and a Chair,” his account of a hotel meeting with Tennessee Williams, Gasparini quotes the great playwright, “The human heart has no straight lines.” Assuming it travels in circles or deviates to intersect with other heart-lines, we see the gestalt of stories that intend to connect. That is what compels us.

Linda Rogers used to be a novelist, but now she is a back seat driver.