scarecrow reviews


Delores Philips - The Darkest Child

Delores Philips - The Darkest Child
Marion Boyers Publishing Ltd.
£9.99 paperback.

Rating : ***

The Darkest Child tells of fair-skinned Rozella Quinn’s many children of every shade, and their escape from – or survival under – her maniacal and cruel brand of parenting. It is set in 1958 in a small Georgia town during the outfall of de-segregation – long before psychology reached the armchair. Tangy Mae, the darkest of Rozella’s children, yearns for a better life and seeks it through education – a route Rozella attempts routinely to sabotage with violence and by forcing Tangy Mae, with her older sisters, into domestic and sexual slavery. Through Tangy Mae’s first-person narrative we observe a world where the tension of racial divides and abuses are mirrored in the internal family world.

The narrator’s self-conscious language, laden with uncomfortable description, lends the account a feeling of being over-written in places; but then again, her verbosity could have been devised by Philips to illustrate the protagonist’s youthful attempts to intellectually distance herself from the restraints of her family and of society. The feeling is she is still close to events at the time of this story’s telling.

Tangy Mae’s voice cannot be considered objective; it is closer to a diary than a report, despite seldom granting us insight into the impressive intellect other characters speak of her possessing. But throughout her narrative there is little to demonstrate that this intellectual superiority would offer her a psychological escape any more successful than the attempts of her siblings.

In the Quinn family, brutality is routine – though the mother is the sole distributor of it. The children offer one another a tenuous support system; only a local man, Velman, seeks to interrupt the abuse, rescuing Tangy Mae’s mute sister, Martha Jean, and marrying her. One might question the wisdom of involving himself in such mania; but it seems it is the novel’s intention to consider such questions of involvement, in terms of racial and family conflict.

The only character who offers any constructive thought on these matters is Junior, an activist seeking equality in a lagging society. Junior is lynched early on and leaves behind him a moral vacuum that the recipients of cruelty inflicted by evil white men and the wicked Rozella cannot fill. In a world where most characters are wicked or wretched there are few occasions where Tangy Mae reveals any insight into their inner lives beyond their responses to outer circumstances. Are we really to believe that Rozella is sometimes nice? Nice enough for her children to take her in once they’ve escaped her branding iron, ice pick and scissors? Once she has murdered one of them and prostituted others? There are only a few incidents in which Tangy Mae expresses a belief, or hope, that there is a lighter side to her mother; one being when Rozella hands her a flaccid, grey bra to mark her passage into adulthood at her school prom – not long before sending her to the whorehouse. At times, Rozella’s character is so slasher horror that her children’s hellish experiences can be viewed only with detachment, rather than the emotional investment her narrative fails to elicit. The point might be whether or not Tangy Mae is requesting our empathy at all, or merely conveying the facts – in which case we must consider the occasionally absurd description (in one instance she likens a belting to her head to a tourniquet) and whether, if this language were pared back to reveal a colder horror, we might more readily empathise.

The existence of cruelties inflicted between races and family members in this novel cannot be denied. But is this a pertinent point? This story is about conflict, repression, independence and dependence, action and inaction, yet despite all this there is never a feeling of any character – least of all Tangy Mae – having escaped their difficulties emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise. The scope of a human story such as this, unfolding against a hostile historical backdrop, requires greater character development than simply branding each one with irreparable frailties of body and mind. Beating the reader over the head with its brutality is not enough to elicit the sense of liberation this novel appears to strive for.

Naomi Ziewe © 2006.


Robert Woodard - Heaping Stones.

Heaping Stones - Robert Woodard
Burning Shore Press, 2005


Heaping Stones is the first release from Long Beach publishing house Burning Shore Press, and as a statement of intent it couldn’t be much stronger. On one level this is the story of the author, (anti) hero in his own book adrift in a world of booze, lost loves and mundane work. Woodard’s brand of California existentialism is nowhere near as dry and academic as the term sounds – Heaping Stones is a dizzying onslaught of drunken philosophizing, frenzied sex and literary discussion, all served with a healthy dose of angst and inner turmoil. In short it’s a uniquely brilliant and exciting book.

The book is also the story of 3 women: Maggie - whose very absence becomes integral to the story, Veronica - who makes herself a stage upon which writer can act out his own feelings of self-loathing, and Rachael - the young artist who is placed into the role of savior. The sex – and there’s plenty of it – is rendered with an enthusiasm and lust that pervades all aspects of the work: one moment, the cunt of one girl is lovingly described, pubic hair by pubic hair almost, and just as quickly the attention can turn to a dissection of Hamsun's The Ring is Closed without losing pace. The thing that jumps off the page is the author’s own wonderment at the fundamentals of life: women, art and intoxicants (here, cold beer). There’s something of Kerouac’s wild-eyed embracing of beatitude in Woodard’s prose, as well as the lustful degeneracy of Bukowski.

Writing is the central theme here, and most of the pain in the book stems from the pain of creation itself: the struggle to remain true to oneself in a society geared towards crushing the fight and the originality out of all of us. As Woodard’s hero wrestles with his own writing we slowly realize that the real poetry being put down is right here, on the page.
You find yourself caught up in the pace of it all as sentences start to fly past you and (during one section in particular) traditional punctuation is thrown out of the window altogether in the rush to sing-scream a thousand emotions all at once, a nine page single sentence chapter breathlessly concludes “I might just deserve to be alive after all”

As you can see, this book is more complex than it might at first seem. Woodard has started with the conceits of a more traditional roman a clef and produced something very different, something which borders on prose poetry at times but which is, at heart, a self-portrait. Unlike most writers who have attempted such a thing, Woodard offers us a very human portrayal, with the blood, shit, sweat and imperfections not only included, but held up to the light and examined with glee. The unflinching honesty of the writing put me in mind of Henry Miller at times.

The next book on Burning Shore Press will be Dan Fante’s play Don Giovanni and with books like this on their roster it’s hard not to feel definite excitement about what the future holds for this radical new publishing house.

Tony O'Neill © 2006.

In a previous life Tony O’Neill played keyboards for bands and artists as diverse as Kenickie, Marc Almond and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. After moving to Los Angeles his promising career was derailed by heroin addiction, quickie marriages and crack abuse. While kicking methadone he started writing about his experiences on the periphery of the Hollywood Dream and he has been writing ever since. His autobiographical novel DIGGING THE VEIN will be published in Feb 2006 by Contemporary Press, in the US and Canada. Wrecking Ball Press plan to release a UK edition Summer 2006. He lives in New York where he works a variety of odd jobs and writes.

More details can be found at

posted by scarecrow  # 2:35 PM


January 2005   February 2005   March 2005   July 2005   August 2005   September 2005   November 2005   January 2006   March 2006   June 2006  

STAR RATING: ***** Excellent **** Very Good *** Average ** Poor * Abysmal

scarecrow home...

scarecrow contributors...

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?