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Book Club Thu Sep 10 2015

Review: Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno

menomarvel.jpgMarvel and a Wonder
by Joe Meno
(Akashic Books, Sept. 1, 2015)

Jim Falls never expected a miracle. At age 71, his family is broken and his farm isn't far behind. "Already he had a presentiment--an unconscious belief--that the country, the world, was coming to an end." But one morning in mid-July, a stranger arrives on the farm with a bright silver trailer. Inside, a gift. A white mare, beautiful and healthy as a racehorse.

"But...but what for?" Jim asks the stranger. "I just get paid to deliver it," the man answers.

In his gritty new novel, Marvel and a Wonder, Chicago writer Joe Meno has reinvented himself again, exploring the haunting human and natural landscapes of the rural Midwest in the vein of the Coen brothers' Fargo and No Country for Old Men.

Set in southern Indiana in 1995, Jim Falls is a stubborn, elderly Korean War vet charged with looking after his 16-year-old grandson Quentin, a shy, video game-obsessed boy with a soft spot for animals. Jim thinks Quentin's a failure like the mother who abandoned him, and that his Ice Cube t-shirts make him look "like a turd, an actual walking, human turd" (Jim has some issues with race, thanks partially to a wartime incident). The generation gap between Jim and Quentin makes for some amazing conversations, alternately hilarious and moving.

When two meth dealers steal the white mare, Jim and Quentin embark on a journey across flyover country to track it down. It's a coming-of-age story, not just for Quentin, but for his grandfather, too.

After his bold and bizarre debut novel Tender as Hellfire in 1999 when he was just 24 years old, Meno has quietly established himself as one of Chicago's most prolific, consistent, and interesting writers. He's since written several additional novels and two short story collections, mostly for Akashic Books, while teaching creative writing at his Chicago alma mater, Columbia College.

Marvel and a Wonder, both bleak and beautiful, is in some ways a stunning departure for Meno, and perhaps a turning point in his career. It features neither the Generation X punk-rock scene of Hairstyles of the Damned and Office Girl, nor the magical realism of The Boy Detective Fails and Demons in the Spring.

Instead, Meno has placed his prose into a crucible and burned away most of his earlier stylistic and cultural influences, as well as his playful use of form and whimsy. What's left is a lyrical, rhythmic way of speaking akin to Donald Ray Pollock and Ron Rash, as dry and sparse as the Midwestern landscape in which Marvel takes place.

To see what I mean, look at the opening lines of Meno's previous novel, Office Girl, which I only half-jokingly called "(500) Days of Winter on Chicago Avenue" last week:

But then there is the absolute bullshit of it! The amazing gall of some people! Who does he even think he is? Odile Neff, art-school dropout, age twenty-three, rides her green bicycle along the snowy streets of the city at five p.m., arguing with herself.

Note the fluidity of voice and form that perfectly encapsulates the mental landscape of a twenty-something art student. Now, compare it to the opening lines of Marvel and a Wonder:

Over the low-lying fields, over the wide meadows, the sun--rampant, galloping westward--beating back the night. On and on across the white hills, the dun-colored hills, the hills ripening with green, rays of light striking the sun-bleached henhouse, marking faint flecks of painted wood gone a vulgar gray; the land itself shadow-quiet, blue, blurred by fog.

Joe Meno is a writer who wears many hats, and a dusty, corn-yellowed Stetson looks pretty good on him. If you'd like to hear Meno read from the book and get a signed copy, Gapers Block is co-sponsoring the release party for Marvel and a Wonder tonight (Thursday, Sept. 10) at 7pm at the Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave.

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